How emissions from 3D printers pose a potential health hazard

You can move manufacturing out of traditional plants with 3D printers, but emissions continue to be a concern. A UL study found 216 different VOCs released through the use of 3D printers.

GE is revolutionizing jet engine production with 3D printing An essential part that used to be made up of dozens of components was transformed at GE's new Chakan, India plant with 3D printing. Find out more here.

The advent of 3D printing allows for an hours-to-days turnaround time for rapid prototyping and production of parts, by bringing manufacturing abilities closer to the engineers designing the parts being produced. The commodity cost of 3D printers, likewise, has led to their inclusion in schools as part of a broader push for STEM education.

However, air quality is likely to suffer as a result—a 3D printer is essentially a miniature manufacturing plant, in form and function, and is often deployed in facilities, such as standard office buildings, not properly equipped for ventilation. Volatile organic compound (VOC) concentrations in air increase with the use of 3D printers, with a two-year study by UL and the Georgia Institute of Technology finding 216 individual VOCs released into indoor air through the use of 3D printers.

SEE: IT pro's guide to 3D printing technologies (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Specific VOCs released during printing varied depending on the filament material, with some of the compounds, "known or suspected to be carcinogens or irritants," according to the report, "exceeded recommended indoor levels linked to adverse health effects."

RIZE, a 3D printer manufacturer, is touting their RIZE One Industrial 3D Printer and Rizium One filament, release and marking inks as the first in the industry to receive UL 2904 GREENGUARD certification, a standard published in 2018 for printers to be used safely in typical indoor environments while reducing pollution and chemical exposure.

"With a lot of our printers, we have an area where we have special ventilation. As an engineering team, when you want to get something printed, you send it to our manufacturing group, they print it there," Shawn Ehrstein, director of the CAD/CAM lab at Wichita State University's National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR), told TechRepublic. "With RIZE, being able to put it into the room with the engineers, it allows you to utilize the benefits of our 3D printing at a greater pace because… we don't have to store it in an area where we just have printing going on."

Research at NIAR depends on rapid prototyping and testing of designs. The group works extensively with certification agencies to establish compliance with regulatory and safety standards, and remediate issues in designs surfaced through environmental testing. Ehrstein noted the convenience of RIZE's ability to mark parts with QR codes for tracking parts.

"You can come up with something, you want to get it printed so you can see what it looks like and get a better idea of its form, fit and function," Ehrstein said. "You can print it right away, take it out, snap off the supports, and then you have your object. It can lead to faster turnaround times, you can be more innovative by utilizing the power of 3D printing in the office setting and getting feedback right away." 

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Image: Jon Chomitz/RIZE