3D Printing

3D Printing: It’s fine to get excited, but take heed…

This post has been formulating for some time, and it was a vehement conversation with Rachel Park at TCT Live last week that kind of brought it to a head. Rachel, who I have known for many more years than either of us care to put a number to, persuaded me to put pen to paper (figuratively speaking) and has edited it for publication. I admit, I am a talker not a writer!

Having worked with additive technology since the earliest days of Rapid Prototyping — at that time getting my hands dirty on the machines and loving it — I understand the capabilities AND THE LIMITATIONS of these processes. As much as I am an advocate and a fan of 3D printing technologies and I am very happy to see the increased interest and wider adoption, I do have some serious concerns — particularly for users of machines at the entry level. And it is these concerns that I wish to share here — it is about the materials used for “consumer” 3D printing and the inherent safety issues. I am genuinely worried.

The main problem that I can see are the current 3D printing systems targeted at the consumer/maker market — promoted with the message that users can print what they want, when they want. This includes replacement parts for general household appliances. Quite simply this is wrong. These current entry-level 3D printers are still relatively limited in terms of what and how they print.

The main problem with the current 3D printing systems targeted at the consumer/maker market is the message that users can print what they want, when they want

All homes have household appliances that have moulded parts, examples include handles on kettles, coffee pots, saucepans etc. These products will have been designed and tested, and tested again by design engineers to make them fit for purpose. I am an engineer myself, and it is a tough discipline, that requires knowledge and understanding and although we, as engineers, would hopefully not use a component manufactured on one of the 3D printers now being sold ‘for home use’ to replace a broken household item, my fear — my greatest fear — is that an enthusiastic maker or anyone not educated in material qualification processes for specific applications (weight and heat requirements to name a couple) will. The implications of this are truly frightening, in my opinion.

A loaded saucepan, kettle or coffee pot —with a replacement 3D printed part — full of boiling liquid is an accident waiting to happen if (or rather when) the material fails. Even more frightening is the potential outcome if a small child is nearby when it happens — I have grandchildren and this just does not bear thinking about. 3D printing vendor companies are saying that their systems are running injection moulding-like materials. The operative word here is “like” — ie it is NOT the same. To be blunt, when you understand the nature of the build process in one of these entry level 3D printers, you understand that they are nowhere near the true material properties of injection moulded materials. Taking this scenario one step further, if someone tries to replace a broken component on a car the results could, quite simply be fatal. The original design and material would have been put through extensive testing for fatigue, environmental testing both in hot and cold climates etc. To try and replace one of these components would be ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean that someone that thinks they know better (there are many around) won’t try!

Another issue that concerns me is fire resistance. Having entry-level 3D printed  materials close to a heat source could actually prove fatal. Just one practical issue that could result from this (apart from the sheer devastation) is that house and car insurers would almost certainly use this as a reason to not pay up in the case of an insurance claim. Would it be worth losing everything because of one, unqualified 3D printed part?

My main concern is, obviously, for people’s safety which raises questions over product quality and fire resistance

There are many instances where this scenario could play out — not just the few examples I have given.  I cannot overstate how much this worries me. My main concern is, obviously, for people’s safety, but on a secondary level — as an industry we cannot afford for this to happen because of the irreparable damage it would do to the credibility of the additive manufacturing sector as a whole. As one who has worked long and hard to build that credibility, along with many others, I really don’t want to see that wiped out overnight.

And it appears I am not the only one! I was pointed to a blog post written by Al Dean of Develop 3D back in June. He brings up the issue of safety too and uses the example of a vacuum cleaner handle — he is exactly right.

Now I am aware that this post may come across as negative — it’s purpose is to serve as a warning. I urge you to take note, discuss and share. The purpose is not to denigrate 3D printing in any way — as I mentioned I love this technology. What I do hope to gain from this is a sensible debate that brings about knowledge and understanding of what 3D printing CAN do and what it CAN’T. And also, for vendors to include safety warnings and full information about materials and what they are truly capable of.

Graham Tromans; Principal Consultant and President of G P Tromans Associates.

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