Buying a 3D Printer? UL Has Some Safety Advice
They’re oh-so-cool and increasingly popular, but watch what, and how, you print
Tempted to buy your own 3D printer? It’s becoming more and more feasible for some people, thanks to prices that now start as low as $350. (Higher-end models, which make for more accurate prints with better designs, cost several thousand dollars.) But before you fork over the money to print that, well, fork (or spoon or auto part), heed a few words of safety advice.
What is 3D printing?
3D printers bring the manufacturing process into your home, where you can print almost anything imaginable instead of buying it from a store. (Large companies, such as General Electric, have used 3D printers for nearly three decades to create turbines and many other products.) You first design an item with modeling software, then the printer builds a real-life version of your creation using materials like wax, plastic, plaster, sand or metals.
People have begun printing a slew of interesting creations: forks and knives, tools to help fix a car, parts to replace defective appliance components. Some enthusiasts even have found a way to print food. And sixth graders from Irmo, South Carolina, recently made headlines by using their school’s 3D printer to print prosthetic hands.
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Heat, fumes and moving parts: You’re a manufacturer now
Manufacturing facilities have high-grade ventilation systems and employee safety requirements. If you’re using a 3D printer at home, you’ll also want to take some precautions.
“When 3D printing, you’ll find that the fumes are not pleasant and should be avoided,” says Paul Bates, UL’s lead 3D printing engineer. “It’s like using glue or paint, where you always want to have a window open. “
“There are studies being done right now to measure how much emissions come off these machines and how safe they are, and they’re not done yet,” adds Bates. “Err on the side of caution.”
And remember, you’re using a machine, so keep kids and pets away. “It’s electric, it moves around, it does something physical. They also have hot parts where you can potentially burn yourself,” says Bates.
Fears of forks and food
Printing something that touches your food, like a fork, mug or a plate, may not be the smartest use of 3D printers, Bates says.
“There are lots of data files out there for forks and knives, but take care to see what you’re putting against your food,” Bates says. “With 3D printing, you’re creating something layer by layer, creating minute gaps between each layer. If food or bacteria gets caught in there without proper cleaning, there could be health risks.”
Then there’s the question of printing food itself. Some people are successfully printing sugar cubes and edible cake decorations, for example.
“Food printing is very limited in what it can do,” says Bates. “You won’t make steak or meatloaf, but you can create decorative food. People are using it to decorate the top of cakes quite successfully.”
It’s an interesting idea, but one that, again, poses potential safety concerns. For one, putting food into a printer that may have just printed plastic might be inadvisable. It’s also unclear what effects the 3D printing process may have on the food.
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Use caution with replacement parts
With 3D printing, Bates says, you potentially can make a part to fix your ailing washing machine or refrigerator and not wait for the manufacturer to send a replacement. But watch out.
“Think carefully about what you’re going to make,” Bates says. “If you’re going to make something for performance, like a shelf bracket or a piece for an appliance, make sure it’s strong enough to meet the needs of that part.”
At-home 3D printing is still a new frontier, and so far, all safety bets are off. Though you have an opportunity to create just about anything you want, the bottom-line message as this point is, “Do it at your own risk.”
And remember, just as in cooking or art, the end result may not be quite what you imagined.