• 01/16/2014
    9:06 AM
    Thomas Burke, Principal Engineer, ICT Equipment, UL
  • Thomas Burke, Principal Engineer, ICT Equipment, UL
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3D Printing Is The Future, But Safety Comes First

3D printing will be a disruptive force in manufacturing and IT, but with the benefits come safety risks.

To say that 3D printing is booming would be putting it lightly. At the 2014 International CES this month, an entire exhibition space was devoted to the technology: the sold-out 3D Printing TechZone. Further, countless reports, including one from IDC, project explosive growth in the 3D printing market between now and 2017.

3D printing seems capable of producing a global renaissance in manufacturing. It has the potential to transform the supply chain by allowing a rise in distributed (versus centralized) production. If product components such as car parts can be printed on site, companies will be less dependent on foreign labor and global shipping. In addition, on-demand production capabilities may reduce waste and lower inventory costs.

[Are Internet of Things devices the next big thing? See 10 Wearables To Watch At CES 2014.]

On the surface, it may not seem clear how 3D printing impacts the IT department. Topics like manufacturing process, supply chain management, and global distribution are not typically handled by the CIO. However, CIOs do have a role here, starting by engaging the C-suite in discussions about how 3D printing can improve the business.

The use of computer-aided design/manufacturing for 3D printing is guided by IT. There will be new data types, data models, and content types to evaluate and organize. Additionally, the IT department will be involved in printer buying decisions in some form based on the software platform in use. IT department expertise will also be required to connect printers to the network and allow staff to interface with them.

Figure 1:

As IT groups consider ways to be involved in the 3D printing movement, they should also consider how history has proven time and again, from medical devices to cleaning products, that the growth associated with a new technology (or application of it) must be safe and sustainable to succeed.

While 3D printing has many benefits, there are also potential risks, especially for company executives looking to buy printing equipment. These should be evaluated as part of an overall approach to risk management.

High voltage and hot
First and foremost is the safety of the equipment itself. 3D printers can be relatively complex, incorporating high-voltage power supplies, multiple moving parts, and hot surfaces.

The latest product safety standards can address these potential hazards, so it's smart for buyers to ensure the equipment has been tested and certified by an established third-party certifier. This also helps satisfy any legal obligations established for electrical equipment used in the workplace, like the US OSHA workplace regulations.

Airborne emissions
Beyond these obvious safety hazards, there is growing concern with not-so-obvious ones, such as airborne emissions and indoor air quality. Further study is needed before standards can be put in place, but some printers have been shown to emit significant amounts of ultrafine particles.

In fact, the Illinois Institute of Technology conducted a study last year and found a small desktop 3D printer had emission rates similar to those of a cigarette burning indoors. In response, some manufacturers are requesting equipment testing to help customers assess workplace safety risks.

IP theft and counterfeiting
In addition to airborne emissions, companies should watch out for the potential misuse of the technology. Sharing of 3D item designs will only increase, setting the stage for black market goods. Industry growth could be slowed by costly litigation.

As more companies embrace 3D printing, battles over intellectual property could become commonplace. It may be appealing to start producing tools and components independently, but a rise in cease-and-desist orders is possible.

There are other preventative measures, such as identification and encryption software, that address counterfeiting and copyright infringement. There isn't a complete solution yet, but enterprises will need the guidance of independent safety and standard development organizations to protect them against counterfeit products.

3D printing is a breakthrough in an era already rife with breakthrough technologies. Though still in its infancy (despite being around in some form for more than 20 years), it is evolving quickly. People can create 3D printed prosthetics, food, car bodies, and more. But before you rush to purchase a printer, consider whether the proper safety measures are in place.

Thomas Burke is one of UL's principal engineers for the high-technology sector and represents UL on the technical committees responsible for the safety requirements of 3D printers.

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You mention evaluting the software these printers run. Can you discuss that a bit more? For example, what does the printer's software bring to the party -- just the basic operation of the machine, or does it help use design items to print? Will these interface with CAD applications like SolidWorks?

Re: Software?

Lorna, there are some free 3-D design programs out there, but of course Solidworks can generate the STL files necessary. Those STL files are then "sliced" by another software (usually provided by the maker of the printer, but third party software is available). These create a file such as a .x3g or similar file that provides the tool path for the print head to be able to build up a part layer by layer, with the X-Y resolution controled by a stepper motor and a vertical Z axis resolution determined by the minimum layer thickness the printer can create. My company just bought a Makerbot Replicator 2x which can "print" using a corn based plastic called PLA or ABS plastic. In the future printers using resin or even molten metal will become more common. Remember that these devices are in their infancy. In contrast, ink jet printers  have had 20 years of development. But the future for these devices looks great.

Re: Software?

Hello @Lorna Garey:   In the post software associated with 3D printing was mentioned in a general sense and there is nothing inherently problematic with the software.   It was mentioned in the post both because CIOs likely would want to have an awareness of both its selection/use for business processes involving hardware like 3D printers connected to the network, and because of the still evolving copyright and intellectual property issues that potentially/theoretically could impact products a company produces via 3D printing.  It appears someday (soon) there may be the ability/demonstrated need to incorporate into the software features that assist preventing infringement of these evolving legal boundaries, or that prevent the software from being used for nefarious purposes (e.g., design/printing firearms), but the industry does not seem to be quite there yet..  Regarding CAD applications and SolidWorks in particular, certainly I have seen a variety of online discussions on the use of this software for aspects of 3D printing, as @moonwatcher further elaborated on.  Thank you.

Re: Software?

What kind of printing will it do ? Can it be used by attaching with sublimation machine?

Remote printing

One compelling potential use case for 3D printing a CIO shared with me is to create spare parts out on a remote oil or gas drilling rig, so that rig can store fewer spare parts. It now stores a lot because it's so hard to get a replacement to the site, and so costly to have downtime. But the safety factor is interesting -- injury at a remote rig are a major concern as well. 

3-D Printing, is it safe?

I did want to mention that when printing ABS (a plastic), 3-D printers put out a small amount of HCN (Hydrogen cyanide)...a not very good for your health compound. Hence, to be "safe" the printer should be ventilated inside a small fume hood or at least have a snorkel device over it to ensure those emissions do not propagate into the office area. Measurements done in the "real world" indicate those emissions are very small - below OSHA limits - but they can't be ruled out, and might be cumulative over time, so businesses ought to factor those costs into the purchase of a 3-D printer. Also, proper training is required because those nozzles are HOT and will permanently scar someone burned by them.

Real concerns or an attempt to save their market?

Sounds like the death gasps of companies that have been able to charge whatever they want for parts. I have no doubt that this will have an impact on some production lines, but warning us about heat and emissions? I think the battles over intellectual property are actually going to be quite real, and the winners will be the consumer for a change. Instead of paying an outrageous amount for a replacement part that can only be ordered from a single source - who will tell us that part is no longer available, but if we can buy the new model...we will be able to build our own spare parts.