Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Require New Safety Measures to Protect Workers
I am a mechanical engineer with a background in process engineering and combustion, as well as all forms of air pollution control. Much of the work I do is related to indoor air quality or protecting workers from occupational exposures, which is typically when my background in process engineering comes in handy. To mitigate risks associated with occupational exposures, I may look to change the raw materials used in the process or alter the methodology of processing, which can help make the process inherently less polluting. If these methods are utilized and the process still results in occupational exposures or ambient emissions above respective OSHA thresholds or state and federal regulatory limits, then engineering controls including industrial ventilation and tail end air pollution control systems are brought into the mix. During my career with TRC, which spans over three decades, I have seen how just about everything gets made or unmade—from cement, metals and paper to specialty chemicals, batteries and even military ships. It is safe to say that by working in process engineering, I have experienced my own version of the hit TV show “How It’s Made.” Ironically, “How It’s Made” wouldn’t be the only TV show my career is like; many of the projects I work on can turn into “Dirty Jobs” very quickly. A hallmark of the show “Dirty Jobs” is hazardous labor, which is something I encounter quite often when taking on projects.
New Manufacturing Approaches Require New Worker Protections
One manufacturing technique that has seen an uptick in use, but where the occupational hazards are not yet widely recognized is additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing is the process of adding materials to make functional products. Additive manufacturing includes different techniques such as flame spraying, powder bed diffusion, laser sintering, electron beam melting and many others. The most widely recognized additive manufacturing technique that is rapidly moving from small scale, R&D or prototyping use, to large scale industrial use is 3D printing.
In recent years, manufacturing techniques have undergone a monumental transformation, with industries such as aerospace, automotive, metals forging and casting, electronics, medical, and even consumer packaged goods pivoting towards the use of 3D printing. Whereas traditional methods of manufacturing fall short in several areas, such as design flexibility, cost effectiveness and production speed, 3D printing allows manufacturers to create more complex products at reduced costs and decrease production time. Additionally, using 3D printing in manufacturing is far less wasteful and as a result, more sustainable. Although such advancements in technology are beneficial in replacing inefficient methods of manufacturing, they often come with occupational hazards. It is crucial that companies establish appropriate safety protocols in the workplace to minimize the risk that workers face.
How It’s Made: Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing
The materials being used in 3D printing include various plastics, metals, resins and even carbon fiber. Many of these materials are utilized in powder form and have combustible and explosible characteristics as well as inhalation exposure hazards. Proper storage, handling and use of these materials is a critical safety consideration. The 3D printing process can also release hazardous fumes and appropriate ventilation and respiratory protection may be required to safely work with the printer. An industry where there is movement away from traditional processing methods towards additive manufacturing is aluminum die casting. Aluminum powders can have explosive characteristics that present a higher hazard than for example grain dusts, for which the NFPA established standards in 1923. Aluminum is one of several combustible metals for which NFPA 484 has guidance on the safe handling, storage, and use.
The advancements in 3D printing in the manufacturing world aren’t limited to just metals; there are plenty of non-metallic materials that are currently being used to make products. For instance, 3D printing has completely changed the production of medical devices including prosthetics, making prosthetics less expensive and more customizable. 3D printing is also a useful tool when it comes to creating prototypes or models, which has proved to be incredibly beneficial for architects and engineers.
Dirty Jobs: 3D Printing
The first thing that typically comes to mind about the TV show “Dirty Jobs” is revolting or even downright dangerous labor. While the show tends to feature more obscure professions such as deer urine farmers and feral chicken busters, there are plenty of other jobs that entail risky working conditions. Although it may seem like a relatively low-risk activity, 3D printing could easily make an episode of “Dirty Jobs”. Fine powders are used to 3D print materials quite often, so when it comes to handling fine powders, it is essential that employees have extensive training and are prepared to deal with possible fires and explosions. One way that employees can mitigate the possibility of such incidents occurring is ensuring that all powders are being stored, handled, and disposed of properly. If powders are stored incorrectly, static buildup can cause the powders to combust or explode when they’re dispersed into air. Another precaution that employees should take is establishing an environment that contains safe electrical equipment before introducing fine powders to said environment. Finally, manufacturers must make sure that all work environments are properly equipped with proper ventilation to limit potential occupational exposures, as well as sprinklers and fire extinguishers so that in the event of a fire, employees are able to put it out.
Through the implementation of safety measures such as those previously mentioned, workplaces in which 3D printing takes place can become safer for employees. Even though 3D printing has marked a turning point in manufacturing, it will not continue to see the same success if the right safety precautions aren’t followed. By encouraging employees to adhere to proper protocols when 3D printing, manufacturers can pave the way for the next generation of manufacturing technologies.
Learn More From Our Subject Matter Expert
Leo Tramm has more than 35 years of experience in the fields of industrial process design, air pollution control and indoor air quality management. Leo’s industrial process design experience includes projects involving process improvement, waste heat recovery, energy efficiency, chemical addition, heating and thermal processing and wastewater treatment. These projects were carried out for a wide variety of industries around the world, including primary and secondary metals, wood products, battery, pulp and paper, chemical, food, glass, printing and coating, plating, fertilizer and vehicle manufacturing.
Leo is a key internal expert in ventilation and air pollution control for indoor air quality or environmental compliance. These projects have addressed the hazards associated with flammable liquids and gasses, combustible dusts and toxic materials with occupational and ambient exposure concerns. Project work has included strategic technical and economic sustainability evaluations for capital improvements to individual process steps or the overall facility. Leo has been with TRC since 1992. Contact him at LTramm@trccompanies.com.