We are on the threshold of an explosion in the popularity of 3D printers. As the original patents on 3D printing expire, the market is being flooded with low-cost 3D printers, and the number of inexpensive 3D printers sold per year is doubling every year. As 3D printers grow less expensive, they are becoming increasingly popular in libraries, schools, and homes; even toy 3D printers for children are now available.
However, the popularity of 3D printers has blinded us to their potential risks. The undeniable “coolness” of 3D printing distracts us from the reality that 3D printers are like tiny factories; the materials they use and waste they generate can be hazardous to our health and the environment. But unlike factories, 3D printers are largely unregulated and are being welcomed into our schools and homes.
After we published our findings on the toxicity of 3D-printed parts, we were surprised at the number of emails and phone calls we received from 3D printer users with questions about the safety of their printers. These questions ranged from elementary school students who were concerned about the printer in their classroom, to the head of occupational health and safety at a major university who wanted to develop a set of “best practices” for 3D printer users on her campus but was unable to find official guidance on 3D printer safety from printer manufacturers or regulatory groups.
As a result, most 3D printer users are completely unaware of the health and environmental risks of their printers and have no clear place to go to learn about these risks. A quick browse through thingiverse.com (a website where 3D printer users share their creations) returns scores of 3D-printed coffee mugs, kitchen tools, and other objects that expose users to potentially hazardous substances. And online message boards are filled with questions from printer users, questions like “what is the smell that comes from my printer?” (probably ABS plastic fumes, which can cause headaches and respiratory irritation and should be ventilated outside your school) and “how do I dispose of the solvent I use to clean up parts after printing at my house?” (responses ranged from “flush it down the toilet” to “throw it on a bonfire!”)
To better inform 3D printer users and policymakers, we are creating The PrintSafe Project, a one-stop clearinghouse for up-to-date information about the hazards of 3D printing. The centerpiece of the project will be a website, http://printsafe.org.
For users who already own a 3D printer, http://printsafe.org will provide information about health and environmental hazards specific to the user’s specific type of printer and advice on how to reduce these hazards.
For users who are considering purchasing a 3D printer, http://printsafe.org will guide the user in selecting the least-hazardous type of printer for their specific needs.
Policymakers at the local and state level can use http://printsafe.org as a resource when drafting guidelines about safe use of 3D printers in our businesses, schools, and homes.
The PrintSafe project is still under development, but you are welcome to browse through the beta version of our site. Please contact project lead William Grover for more information.