Burning Down The House: Is Desktop 3D Printing Safe?

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Over the years I’ve written a lot about the safety of desktop 3D printing. When Underwriters Laboratory announced plans to enter the market, I covered it. When Dremel launched the IdeaBuilder I wrote that in my experience, it was among the first to be UL and CE approved – not just at the component level, but the entire device.

Later I wrote about Roger and Valerie Morash, who along with their cats died tragically of carbon monoxide poisoning in their apartment in Berkeley. They had a 3D printer and a laser cutter in their home. Some reports suggested that one of those devices were to blame. It’s more likely that a furnace or appliance caused the leak, but to my knowledge no final culprit has been found.

In my article then, I noted that the 3D printing “industry is immature and much of the work that’s gone into creating these devices has been done by startups. Some don’t have prior experience working with consumer electronics. Until recently, very few desktop 3D printers were even UL or CE approved. Off-the-shelf components like power supplies and motors were typically conforming, but the devices themselves were untested.”

I finished by saying that, “it’s possible that safety could become a big issue for the teachers, parents and children who will power the ‘Next Industrial Revolution’.”

There are many potential safety hazards with desktop 3D printers. They are melting plastic, so there’s certainly heat, in addition to potential air quality issues. They’re also electronic devices, which mean they pose many of the same risks as other appliances.

FIRE HAZARDS

Over the past week, I’ve run into two different examples where desktop 3D printers either were, or could have been, a fire hazard. The first was mentioned in a thread on Reddit. The person actually had a house fire and blamed it on a cheap Chinese 3D printer he’d bought for $200.

Apparently, he let it run while he was away from home. In his post he said, “I’ve had it since September and it’s worked fine but I guess the board just decided ‘Fuck it, imma start a fire >:)’ and started a fire.” The damage wasn’t catastrophic, but the fire department did confirm the printer had started the blaze.

The second case was prevented in time, fortunately. The owner, Clement Travert, had purchased a Pegasus 12 kit from Maker Farm. After the incident he posted about it on the Facebook 3D Printing Club page. He used a 50 amp power supply unit (PSU) to power both the printer and the heated bed. He used speaker wire to connect the bed to the PSU.

[Photo courtesy of Clement Travert]

The group was quick to inform him of the dangers and he is currently rebuilding the machine with separate power supplies and the correct wiring.

I spoke with Clement and he pointed out that, “the initial design was based on a recommendation from the manual provided by Maker Farm. I work as a draftsman for a company that provides air conditioners for yachts, so I’m very familiar with electronics. When I was building it I wondered why they would suggest that configuration. I should have trusted my gut instincts. It’s concerning that there is so much misinformation out there.”

There have been plenty of other examples of fried wiring and components. The connectors and Melzi motherboard on the Wanhao i3/Maker Select V2 are known to be problematic. Reddit and other message boards are filled with comments regarding that configuration.

CAVEAT EMPTOR?

So what should be done? Many believe it’s the consumer’s responsibility. They suggest you buy a more expensive 3D printer from a name brand. But even then there can be problems. Others suggest that buyers looks for a UL or CE approval. But in most cases, it’s still the components that are approved, not the entire device. As a result it takes extensive research to validate that each component is safe.

Others suggest it comes down to use. Many manufacturers warn consumers not to let their 3D printers run while they are away from home. Some users even get concerned when they leave the room. As one commenter noted on the house fire thread, “I get anxious when I leave my maker select running while I’m in the shower.”

Experienced users often suggest fire detection and protection. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are obvious. Enclosures are also recommended. Some even suggest fire suppression canisters like you might find on a commercial or residential stove hood.

REGULATION?

Do these precautions imply that a fire is not only possible, but likely?

I guess that depends on who you ask. Some consumers are worried and they’re looking to raise awareness of the issue. Others are concerned it might lead to more regulation. Again, on the house fire thread, one commenter wrote:

“A bored reporter hungry for a story will see a post like this and start researching the issues. He’ll put up nice pictures, like the one above, as well as fried connectors he finds online. He might even throw in that California couple that died from CO poisoning that happened to have a 3d printer running. And the facts really don’t need to be facts, because most people won’t know the difference. Then he’ll conclude with something like ‘this could have been avoided if there was some kind of certification necessary for 3d printers.’ And people will read it and instantly conclude that they shouldn’t get one because they catch fire. Eventually, if the story takes off, the government will have to step in and regulate.”

My ears were burning! (Pardon the pun.)

I don’t really have an answer for how to solve this issue. On one hand, it seems clear there is a potential for tragedy. You have lots of people who are new to 3D printing. They don’t understand electronics and in many cases have never even seen a soldering iron, much less used one. They probably wouldn’t recognize the signs of a bad connector and certainly wouldn’t know how to replace a wire or motherboard.

They need a reliable plug-and-play experience.

On the other hand you have hobbyists and professionals who are more than capable. But even they understand the dangers of leaving these devices unattended. Desktop 3D printers are slow and long print runs are a fact of life. A decent size part can often take 40 hours or more to print.

It’s pretty unrealistic to think someone can be watching their machine for the entire duration.

Should desktop 3D printers be regulated more strictly? It’s a tough question with many different nuances. But one thing is certain. More of them are in the hands of consumers than ever before.

Safety is an important issue that sooner or later the industry must address. I’d rather be proactive than wait until someone gets hurt…or worse.

So for now, all I can do is raise awareness of the issue and encourage people to follow a few basic safety procedures. Check your hardware for signs of a potential problem. Update your firmware as directed. Use smoke, fire, and carbon monoxide detectors. Visually confirm that the printer is operating properly, and don’t leave it running when you’re not in the vicinity.

Do you think the industry needs to better address the safety issues of 3D printing? Discuss in the Safety Issues forum at 3DPB.com.

[Creative Commons House Fire Spray is Copyright © 2008 by Rob Swystun]

 


John Hauer is the Founder and CEO of Get3DSmart, a consulting practice which helps large companies understand and capitalize on opportunities with 3D printing. Prior to that, John co-founded and served as the CEO of 3DLT. The company worked with retailers and their suppliers, helping them sell 3D printable products, online and in-store.

John’s original content has been featured on TechCrunch, Futurism, QZ.com, Techfaster.com, 3DPrint.com and Inside3DP.com, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @Get3DJohn

 

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