How Safe is 3D Printing? UL Teams Up with Two Universities to Examine 3D Printing’s Effect on Air Quality & Human Health

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ul logoAs we continue to see 3D printing expand substantially in use–sure, perhaps not explosively like early predictions might have had us believe, but certainly enough to make a great deal of companies and consumers alike sit up and take notice–concerns arise regarding what, exactly, we are inviting into our workshops, whether they be at home or at an industrial center. The heart of many of these concerns lies in what comes out of 3D printers. A recent study from UC Riverside, for instance, found that 3D printed objects may be toxic due to the plastics commonly in use; several companies are hard at work developing nontoxic and sustainable, and biodegradable 3D printing materials.

But what about the effects on air quality? Running a 3D printer is (well, generally) an indoor activity, and fumes and other emissions might negatively impact human health–but how much?

Underwriters Laboratories Inc., a nonprofit that is part of the UL global safety science organization, has engaged in several 3D printing-related endeavors we’ve seen so far, from a facility in Singapore to partnerships in Taiwan to certifications for China’s Shining 3D. The organization has recently announced partnerships with two US universities to examine the impact of 3D printing on indoor air quality through thorough research conducted in two phases over two years, expected to be concluded in 2016.

“Our 3D printing research underscores the critical convergence of chemical, environmental and human health safety, expanding the safety paradigm beyond the exploration of traditional fire, shock and casualty criteria,” said Dr. Marilyn Black, vice president and senior technical advisor, Underwriters Laboratories Inc. “This study is part of UL Inc.’s commitment to share knowledge that helps make products safer to operate, safer for the environment and safer for societal health and well-being.”

dr marilyn black

Dr. Marilyn Black, Vice President and Senior Technical Advisor, Underwriters Laboratories, Inc.

Phase one, conducted in partnership with Georgia Institute of Technology, is in progress now, led by Professor Rodney Weber of the institute’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. According to UL’s announcement of the study, this phase is set to define “the appropriate analytical measurement and risk evaluation methodologies for characterizing and assessing particle and chemical emissions from 3D printing technologies.” Georgia Tech and UL Inc. have made “significant progress” already in their emissions study methodology.

Phase two, to be begun in 2016, is in partnership with Emory University. This phase, says UL Inc., “will assess potential health hazards from exposure to the emissions.” Research here will be conducted by Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.

As we cover 3D printing news on a daily basis here at 3DPrint.com, I was eager to find out more about the research being done into the impact all this additive manufacturing has on human health. Dr. Black from UL was kind enough to answer some of my questions so we could take a closer look at this research, including what all is being studied, how, and why.

Below is our interview in full.

What led to this research — was it a new idea, or has it been in process for some time?

“Because very little scientific research has been conducted to date, a knowledge gap exists in the understanding of the health implications associated with the emissions resulting from 3D printing technologies. While some preliminary information on 3D printing emissions indicate that they may be harmful to human health, basic science has yet to define exactly what these emissions are and how to accurately measure them and assess their risks. Therefore, UL has stepped up to take a technical role and scientific lead to develop methodologies that will allow accurate and comparative characterization of the emissions under various use situations.”

What types of machines will be tested? Is the focus on consumer- or industrial-grade hardware (or both)?

“Initial research is focused on smaller consumer and professional print hardware and media that are being used in homes, schools and offices. Once we have a normative methodology for evaluating emissions, we will seek to evaluate a range of different print technologies so that we can understand the range of results expected.”

What types of materials will be used in the testing processes?

“Initially, simple print objects are being made using fused deposition modeling with various thermoplastics including ABS, PLA and nylon.”

ul 3d printHas recent research about the potential health hazards of 3D printing materials impacted UL and its partners’ approach to this new study?

“There have been a few small studies that presented preliminary information on emissions of 3D printing processes, but no other organization is conducting this type of research using the same scientific rigor that UL is. Our partners are eager to understand this issue and enable solutions for reducing any potential threat to human health.”

What are the parameters of the research, in general? A very quick how-to of proposed methodology would be great.georgia tech

“UL is researching the human health impact of particle and chemical emissions from 3D printing. We have outlined very specific outcomes — characterization of chemical and particle emissions, establishing a defined methodology for their characterization and measurement, determining the impact of the emissions on building indoor air quality, and evaluating possible health consequences of these emissions to consumers and operators who may be exposed.

Specifically, we are looking to characterize the different emissions produced by 3D printers with a particular interest in ultrafine particle and volatile organic chemical generation. These emissions will be monitored in relation to print time, print temperature, and print media. The study is broken into two phases. The first phase of our research will characterize the particle emissions by size, quantity and content.

Toxicity studies of these particles will also be made. In addition, VOCs will be identified and quantified. Once we have gathered that information, we can then assess the impact on the quality of indoor air and potential health hazards to those exposed.

A key element is making sure that the methodologies are accurate and reproducible so that print variables can be monitored and control strategies evaluated.”

Will the results of this study be broad or geared more directly to consumer/desktop 3D printing or industrial-scale 3D printing?

“The research will benefit all manufacturers and stakeholders in the 3D printing industry. Although initial research is focused on consumer/desktop printing, the information gained, test methodologies and human risk evaluations will benefit all. Manufacturers can obtain knowledge to develop processes, materials, and 3D printer designs that mitigate potential human health risks; policy makers and users can develop data for evaluation and sound decisions.”

rollinsWhy did UL choose to partner with Emory and Georgia Tech?

“The Georgia Institute of Technology’s Direct Digital Manufacturing Center, with its renowned professors, is leading cutting age research on additive manufacturing. In addition, the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences is internationally renowned for its programs and research in the measurement of atmospheric pollution and human exposure. Georgia Tech has all the sophisticated measurement equipment and experts needed for the study of ultrafine particle aerosols.

Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health also has a strong reputation and credibility in public health and risk assessment, making them a natural choice for the second phase. UL reached out specifically to these schools due to their national and international reputations in additive manufacturing, atmospheric aerosol chemistry and environmental health risks.”

As we edge ever nearer 2016, I look forward to following up on the results from UL’s work with Georgia Tech and Emory to see what they uncover. Certainly, we will all benefit from their findings as we all look to the future of additive manufacturing–as safely as possible.

What are your thoughts on this research?  Let us know in the 3D Printing and Your Health forum on 3DPB.com.

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