Software Firm Leads the Way toward Sustainable, Health-protective 3-D Printing

By Ed Rutkowski

Updated August 12, 2016

May 26, 2016—The vast promise and significant challenges of 3-D printing were on display at AIHce 2016 yesterday as Julia Cabral, the global environmental health and safety manager for the software company Autodesk, described her staff’s efforts to make the revolutionary process safer for both humans and the environment. Cabral’s presentation in the Baltimore Convention Center introduced attendees to the various 3-D printing processes and their health risks, and outlined Autodesk’s collaborations with the University of California-Berkeley and the Biomimicry Institute to investigate alternative processes and materials.

Applications of 3-D printing, which uses computers to guide the layer-by-layer creation of objects, have increased dramatically in recent years as falling costs have made the technology affordable for smaller manufacturers and consumers. While an industrial 3-D printing machine cost well over $100,000 in the late 1990s, Cabral said that a far smaller consumer prototype will be available later this year for less than $100.

But 3-D printing carries some health risks, and as the machines become more affordable, many employers find themselves unprepared to protect workers. Small companies are unlikely to have an industrial hygienist on staff, and some start-ups may be no more than “two guys in their living room creating their product,” Cabral said. “Not everyone has a high level of awareness when it comes to compliance or even hazard.”

The health risks vary according to the process. “Selective laser sintering,” used to create metal objects, involves a powder material that poses inhalation and explosion risks. The polymer-jetting and stereolithography processes use liquid resins as a binding agent and rely on a light source to cure materials. The resins typically contain oligomers and monomers, which can cause eye and skin irritation respectively. Resins also comprise “photoinitiators”—compounds that react to light and can be toxic to the reproductive system—as well as UV-blockers, which can cause skin sensitization. In addition, solvents are necessary to clean the print.

Cabral noted that many consumers mistakenly assume the finished products of 3-D printers are safe. Images on social media indicate that some consumers have created plates and forks with 3-D printers, raising concerns that they are ingesting harmful substances. “Depending on the technology and depending on the material, the prints may not be fully safe. They typically require some sort of post-curing,” Cabral said.

At first glance, Autodesk seems an unlikely company to be at the forefront of health and safety in 3-D printing. It does not produce 3-D printed objects for profit; instead, it makes software that guides the process. As part of an effort to improve its software, the company has created its own machines and resins, Cabral said.

Concern about the health and environmental risks of 3-D printing led Autodesk to partner with the UC-Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry and the Biomimicry Institute to test alternative resins. The collaborations have explored replacing the photoinitiator with safer compounds, among other modifications to the resins’ chemical composition.

While a lack of awareness of health risks is an issue for consumers and smaller employers, OEHS professionals who wish to learn more about 3-D printing face obstacles as well. Much remains unknown about the toxicity of the resins, and many companies do not release health and safety information, citing proprietary business concerns. Autodesk, in contrast, has open-sourced its machines and resins, and has worked with UC-Berkeley to put health and safety information about 3-D printing online. According to Cabral, Autodesk has a simple motivation for making this information available. “There are people who move the world in a more sustainable direction,” she said, describing the mindset of Autodesk’s sustainability team. “Why don’t we be those people?”

CORRECTION, Aug. 12, 2016: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a polyactic acid resin will eventually be available for use in 3-D printers. Use of polyactic acid is actually already common in 3-D printers available to consumers.

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist. He can be reached at (703) 846-0734.

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