Thanks to a continuing surge in K-12 STEM education initiatives, 3D printing in schools is rapidly being adopted for inclusion in science and pre-engineering curricula. It is an excellent starting point for teaching kids about manufacturing, product development, invention and design. However, 3D printing's potential as a pre-collegiate learning tool has come to the fore within only the past few years. This presents a problem for both the 3D printing industry and school boards. How educated are the educators? Are 3D printing vendors being honest with this consumer niche regarding procurement advice and decision making? What steps are manufacturers taking specifically geared for the classroom and in particular, safety?
Before trying to answer the questions, an important statement must be made, for the sake of the 3D printing industry. While nobody should panic, it is time to listen to the warning bells. Much of the user base absolutely does not care. Many of us inhaled second hand smoke for forty years and we are still alive. Cooking with Teflon can kill your parrots, but it isn't going to kill a human. Inhaling exhaust from the tailpipe of the car in front of you at a stop sign is probably worse than inhaling 3D printing fumes. But, there is one important thing to remember. Whether it is cigarettes, wood burning, car exhaust or cookware coating, once the scientists get involved and hard data materializes, movements begin, often leading to regulation by a governing body of some sort.
I can admit to having wafted ABS fumes into my nostrils and liking the smell. Some people sniff glue instead, but it's not quite as nerd-chic as a good hit of high quality ABS. This isn't about me or the majority of casual hobbyist or prosumer 3D printing enthusiasts. It's about potential rules and if there is one type of entity that loves rules, it is a school board. This is for good reason. They are charged with student safety, including the protection of children who either aren't aware or don't report an existing medical condition that makes them susceptible to UFP or VOC triggers.
Due to an ever-increasing number of scientific studies1 on ultrafine particle (UFP) and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, it is clear a simple enclosure to protect hands from heated components may not be enough to address educator concerns in the near future. It has already begun in Canada, where school districts are specifying requirements to manage airborne particulates and compounds. It would be foolish for manufacturers wishing to strongly penetrate the education market to ignore this trend and for purchasers to fail to recognize the potential for regulation that could make the majority of desktop 3D printers available today unusable in a classroom setting within a couple years. The widespread use of machines not addressing the subject has led to the creation of aftermarket solutions, albeit at a price point some might consider more painful than just replacing printers with new ones designed to solve the problem.
The Halton District School Board's current administrative procedures for the selection and use of 3D printers characterizes a general understanding of the primary factors driving emissions for melted plastic extrusion printers. This includes the type of filament being used, enclosures, proper exhaust ventilation and/or HEPA filtration with activated carbon. Interested parties should read it with the understanding that similar guidelines could become stricter in the coming years and at the very least, spread to the United States, where these issues are already being discussed in places like California and Oregon.
Hardcore chemistry literature and white papers are not fun reading, but there are basic things everyone should know.
ABS filament is higher risk than PLA, in terms of mucosal irritation for individuals suffering from respiratory ailments such as asthma and allergies as well as pulmonary disorders. Some nylons and compound materials are worse than ABS.
Printer design also plays a crucial role, with emissions varying widely from one model to the next. Current data indicates desktop units with enclosures are better than open-air printers, while enclosed printers with recirculating HEPA filtration and activated carbon are superior to those without filtering. Remember this when making an education purchase, because the fast-coming studies are so recent, the salesperson might not even know.
Clever instructors can come up with a hacker's solution. Buy an enclosed machine or build an enclosure for an open-air printer and then mod it with something like clothes dryer hose and a fan to exhaust the fumes out of the room. As far as UFPs and VOCs go, that works, but it defeats one of the most important reasons to have an enclosure in the first place – to allow heat build-up that prevents warping. Filtering in the build chamber is simply better. If you have to make your own hack and there is no space inside the unit, pull the air out into a filter and then send the filtered air back into the system.
The state of knowledge among school administrators is improving, but generally speaking, it has been poor for quite some time. RFPs are sent to vendors with printer requirements not specifying anything about enclosures or filtering. 3D Printer World has seen examples of requests demanding open source software, open-air machines, even kits that have to be built. What does that say about the individual tasked with 3D printing purchasing decisions for an educational institution? It says the only advice some decision makers are getting comes from RepRap hobbyists or makerspace participants, probably a teacher who volunteered and listed qualifications such as knowing how to build and repair 3D printers.
It should be noted that these teachers are not being dishonest. They are usually better qualified to teach a class about 3D printing than someone without similar experience. Their personal enthusiasm is a huge bonus, but it also means they have their own proclivities and priorities and the reality is the open source community isn't spending a lot of time worrying about safety issues. It is a group of pioneers seeking more freedom to experiment, not create boundaries. The point being, the best 3D printing teacher is not always the best person to submit procurement conclusions for a school or district. Some instructors stay informed on the latest safety developments and act accordingly – some may even be reading this article – others frankly find information regarding UFPs and VOCs to be a killjoy.
Online forums and Facebook groups are not a great deal of help. One of the most frequently seen questions is something along the lines of, "I'm a teacher and I've been given permission to purchase our school's first 3D printer. What is the best I can get for under $2000?"
Answers to that question will be all over the place. Marketers will push whatever printers they happen to be selling. Open source fanatics will suggest an open-air RepRap derivative, telling you they love the smell of ABS in the morning. Casual hobbyists will say the printer they have is great or terrible depending on their history and luck. Occasionally, someone might mention something about safety, which is typically drowned out by diehard fans of one brand or another.
The truth is that very few people have intimate knowledge of a large number of 3D printers. The online community is like a book-of-the-month club, but the most well-read members have only opened ten books. Half of the opinions are parroting and the other half is mental masturbation, an attempt to prove one's superior geek credentials. I love them all, but they aren't the ones who need to wake up and smell the fumes, unless they are making purchasing decisions for schools.
Having run the 3D Printer World Expos, we have seen hundreds of printers in operation, witnessed the quality of their output and heard opinions from more industry experts than can be counted. UFPs and VOCs are not a matter for frequent discussion, because it isn't in the industry's best interest to make a stink about it (please forgive the pun). The number of manufacturers addressing the issue is too small. Yet, it doesn't take a soothsayer to see the freight train coming. Those thinking about the future will climb aboard and enjoy the bulk buys that come with good educator relationships. Those without emissions control on their radar will be on the outside looking in, when it comes to schools.
To the manufacturers I say, the elephant isn't going away just because we want to look the other direction.
As for the buyers, educate yourself and shop wisely. The 3D printer you purchase tomorrow could require modifications or add-ons in order to comply with selection and usage guidelines before the printer's usefulness has expired.
- Emissions of ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds from commercially available desktop 3D printers with multiple filaments, January, 2016 issue of Environmental Science and Technology
- Emission of particulate matter from a desktop three-dimensional (3D) printer, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Volume 79, 2016 – issue 11
- Emissions of Nanoparticles and Gaseous Material from 3D Printer Operation, September, 2015 issue of Environmental Science and Technology
- Enclosure performance: Ultrafine particles (UFPs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) removal efficiency of desktop 3D printer enclosures, The Built Environment Research Group, Illinois Institute of Technology, February, 2017