June 20, 2023 / Bert Kelly

New Guidance for 3D Printing at Colleges and Universities

Additive manufacturing, or three-dimensional (3D) printing, is a valuable tool that has transformed academic instruction, research, and the student experience in higher education. The use of 3D printing on college campuses has tripled in the past few years and has fostered creative and innovative learning experiences for many students in higher education. Because 3D printers are affordable, compact, and user friendly, they can be found across campuses today—in offices, libraries, laboratories, hallways, residence halls, and classrooms.

Recently, the Chemical Insights Research Institute (CIRI) of UL Research Institutes updated guidance for the safe use of 3D printing at colleges and universities around the country. CIRI partnered with the Campus Safety, Health, and Environmental Management Association (CSHEMA) to produce these guidelines.

3D Printer Safety

While this is an emerging technology, the general hazards associated with 3D printing are related to the specific processes and materials used. These health and safety concerns can be associated with the type of equipment and may include electrical hazards, mechanical forces from moving parts, ultraviolet light (UV), laser or radiation exposure, noise, or burn hazards from hot surfaces. Health and safety concerns may also be associated with the materials used in a specific 3D printing process. These can include burns from molten materials, cuts and dermal exposures, flammability or explosion risk from metal powders, chemical burns from solvents used in post-processing, as well as health hazards associated with inhalation of ultrafine particles, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or toxic smoke, fumes, and dust.

CIRI teamed with CSHEMA to form a working group of health and safety experts from leading universities across the U.S. to develop guidance on the safe use of these printers. These experts brought together CIRI's research knowledge with decades of applied experience with campus facilities and populations to address the critical need for this benchmark guidance document. CIRI's research on 3D printing emissions has found that applying best practices and mitigation strategies can decrease the effect these emissions have on indoor air quality and protect users and observers from adverse acute and chronic health impacts of exposure.

Ensuring Safe Operation

Indoor air quality around 3D printers is an important part of managing risk on campus since 3D printers have been shown to emit ultrafine particles (UFPs) and a complex mixture of VOCs when operating. The first choice for the location of 3D printing activities should be in spaces with dedicated ventilation to ensure acceptable indoor air quality. There are currently no regulatory standards for acceptable indoor air pollutant levels in nonindustrial environments such as homes, offices, and schools. Contaminants should be vented from the room to the outside without recirculating them within the building.

It is also important to purchase 3D printers that have been certified for product safety compliance and always follow the manufacturer's guidelines when operating a 3D printer. Consult campus environmental and facility professionals for a hazard assessment, especially if modifications or novel uses of the 3D printing process are considered. When using a 3D printer and during post-processing activities, always wear appropriate personal protective equipment, which may include lab coats, safety glasses, face shields or safety goggles, and gloves. Standard surgical masks and N95s are not effective at preventing inhalation of VOCs and may not provide adequate protection from UFPs emitted by 3D printers. Some commercial respirators approved by NIOSH provide adequate protection from chemical and particle contaminants, but they can be cumbersome and expensive, and require enrollment in a campus respiratory protection training program. In general, the use of dedicated ventilation, enclosures, and filtration is preferred to mitigate inhalation hazards.

The complete safety guidance document can be found on the CIRI website (PDF).

Bert Kelly

Bert Kelly is communications director at Chemical Insights Research Institute (CIRI) of UL Research Institutes.


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