May 1, 2016 | By Tess

With additive manufacturing technologies developing quickly and being increasingly integrated into manufacturing and prototyping sectors, many questions of safety have arisen, such as how safe materials are and how the machines themselves can effect work environments. Like with any manufacturing process or industrial setting, it is important for safety standards and regulations to be established to keep those working around the materials, such as powdered metals, safe from both short and long term harm. To address certain safety concerns surrounding metal 3D printing specifically, Ed Tackett, the director of education programs at the UL Additive Manufacturing Competency Center at the University of Louisville, has laid out some guidelines which could reduce or eliminate certain risks posed by the technology.

As one can imagine, having a machine that turns powdered metals (which can be in particles smaller than  100microns in size), into solid objects, could create some safety concerns, from the inhalation and exposure to the powdered metals, to the operation of the machines themselves. Powdered aluminum, for instance, can cause some serious respiratory and even neurological problems if enough particles of it are inhaled, and as Tackett points out about other powdered materials, “We don’t know what the long-term effects of exposure to these powders are.”

To keep those at risk of inhaling the metal powders safe, Tackett suggests a number of things. First, he suggests the wearing of a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health approved respirator mask, explaining “Personally, no matter what machine is running, I wear a p100 myself. No one touches a machine or opens a tray without a respirator on.” A p100 is capable of filtering out at least 97.97% of particles in the air that are at least 5microns in size.

Second, Tackett also suggests wearing a fireproof lab coat, eye protection, and 5 mil nitrile gloves to protect while you handle the materials. As many metal 3D printers currently require manual restocking of the powdered metal through open canisters, these safety precautions are paramount. Perhaps somewhere down the line metal additive manufacturing systems will be designed to be more contained, lessening the all around risks.

According to Tackett, SLM Solutions’ metal 3D printer is probably the safest on the market as it boasts a closed-loop powder loading system, which only exposes the user to an open canister of metal powder for a few seconds. Of course, it is not only those loading the machines who must take precautions, as those who handle the finished parts may also be exposed to loose metal powders.

Aside from the inhalation and exposure to powdered metals, there is also the matter of oxygen monitoring that should be taken into account. Typically, laser melting 3D printers use gasses such as argon or nitrogen to displace oxygen, making for a safer build environment within the machine. With several 3D printers condensed into a poorly air circulated factory space, however, this displacement of oxygen can also be dangerous. Tackett explains, “What happens is that argon and nitrogen displace the oxygen. It’s just like carbon monoxide poisoning.” To ensure that the air in the factory or shop space is adequate for breathing, Tackett recommends the installation of a O2 sensor (set at 21-25%), which can monitor the air quality.

Another risk concern with metal additive manufacturing is that of fire caused by static electricity. As powdered substances mixed with static electricity can burst into flame with the slightest ignition, it is crucial to keep the additive manufacturing space free of static electricity. This can be done by grounding all machines using anti-static mats, having statically grounded vacuum cleaners, covering the floors with an anti-static coating, and requiring technicians to wear anti-static shoes.

Of course, the risk of having metal powders set on fire is extremely dangerous, especially as metal fires are more difficult to put out and require different extinguishing techniques than regular fires. Tackett explains, “Metal fires represent a unique hazard because people are often not aware of the characteristics of these fires and are not properly prepared to fight them. Even a small metal fire can spread and become a larger fire in surrounding ordinary combustible materials.” In case of a metal fire, shops and factories should equip themselves with a Class D fire extinguisher and teach technicians and workers to spray the extinguisher down towards the fire rather than straight at it.

As more and more companies and manufacturers introduce metal additive manufacturing into their processes, these safety concerns and operations are increasingly important. The team working with Tackett at the University of Louisville are encouraging those who do to maintain strict safety regulations, train personnel, and keep Material Safety Data Sheets up to date.

“Any time you’re going to put in an additive manufacturing system, site preparation and site safety are paramount,” says Tackett. “As AM emerges to a front line manufacturing technique, I think somebody really needs to take a leadership position as far as safety, personal protection and training. We certify operators for CNC machines, we should train for AM.”



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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Bob Miller wrote at 5/5/2016 7:26:15 PM:

Check all applicable local, state and federal health and safety requirments.

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