With key adopting industries investing significantly in research and development projects, hardware, and expertise, the additive manufacturing (AM) market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.5% between 2012 and 2017 and reach nearly $3.5 billion by 2017 as per a report published by MarketsandMarkets. Even though additive manufacturing has been around for decades, with the reduction in the cost of additive manufacturing hardware in recent years, the technology is finally becoming readily available. This means that anyone can now create three-dimensional designs at home, on a machine, with little investment. No longer the stuff of science fiction, additive manufacturing is a new reality.
When thinking about turning that next cool idea into a digital form using a 3D printer, make sure you are set to take the necessary safety precautions. With such a rapidly evolving technology as AM, it can be a challenge to maintain safety standards that properly address each risk. While other industries benefit from decades of data concerning the identification and mitigation of risks to health and safety, AM is too new an industry to benefit from the same careful study. Safety is not down to a science yet.
Following are a few risk factors related to additive manufacturing that can be remedied with the right safety measures and training:
Exposure to metals
The use of metals in additive manufacturing is growing and so is the importance of understanding the risks of exposure to powdered metals. In the additive industry, the average particle size is 25 to 150 microns, requiring special handling and storage. Metal toxicity is a real threat. While the possibility of invisible toxins wafting into our nasal passages is terrifying enough, there are other concrete risks such as the metal in the powder getting into eyes and into open cuts. The human body cannot readily metabolize most of these metallic powders, and buildup through exposure can quickly reach toxic levels.
Monitoring gas levels
Any machine that uses laser sintering runs with odorless and colorless gases that displace oxygen. Couple that with the fact that many companies are not putting these machines on manufacturing floors that have plenty of open space, but are instead locating them in smaller rooms, and you have a problem. Installing an oxygen sensor is recommended wherever these machines are placed to continually record the level of oxygen in the room.
Additive manufacturers also need to consider how to handle exhaust gases. Some machines expel dangerous gases when they print, requiring ventilation to the outside of the building. Safety training should cover off-gassing and proper management of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and inorganic compounds. Sometimes, the use of a charcoal scrubber is warranted too. Companies should develop an air quality management plan with system vendors or consult with a professional organization to develop a risk-reduction strategy. Even desktop 3D printers can emit dangerous gases.
Handling of materials
Most manufacturing plants deal with bulk material. The waste in the AM process is powder. It is not a lot of powder waste, but it is powder, and metal in powdered form can be explosive. How do you dispose of it? Every company needs to develop delivery, handling, and storage procedures to complete their plant safety plan.
In processes involving powdered metal, static electricity is also a concern. When a static arc is possible, the metal in question is considered reactive. It is not uncommon to have a metal fire inside of one of these machines. Because static electricity can lead to fire, the type of fire extinguisher that is readily available in the vicinity of an AM operation matters. Most companies already have Class A, B, and C fire extinguishers on hand, but AM metals, which are combustible, require a Class D extinguisher.
People and equipment are both huge investments, and manufacturers shouldn’t risk the health and safety of the workforce by failing to implement adequate safety measures. With proper training and a clear understanding of the handling and storage of metal powders, static electricity, and flammability risks, additive manufacturing safety measures can be easily and effectively implemented.