I’ve been using rapid prototyping or 3D printing, as it is now referred to, since the late 80s, and it is a fantastic and valuable tool. With Stratasys’s patents expiring and everyone jumping on the bandwagon to make them, there are literally hundreds of cheap 3D printers available. Since the 3D fad has become mainstream I have been asked numerous times “where is your machine”?
I’ve always been of the view that these machines, the cheaper ones which are affordable to small business and home users, do not provide a print quality I would be happy to supply to a client, as well as being extremely slow. Additionally, speaking to 3D printing enthusiasts, it also seems that using these printers is a bit of a black art and to want to use them you really had to be an enthusiast. So quite happily I have been leaving 3D printing to the specialist bureaus and focused on what I do best, which is design.
However recently at the National Manufacturing Week, I came across a couple of relatively in-expensive printers for under $10k. These provided a quality model of a bottle (a product I regularly design) that I would be happy to show clients. What excited me more was that some of these printers could produce a fairly large part quite fast. It was nearing the end of the financial year. I had the fund’s. Was now the time to buy?
For the first time in 30 years I was serious about owning a printer of my own. So this was the first time that I really started doing homework about the finer details of these machines. I was getting into the nitty-gritty of speed, materials, ease of operation, remote control, maintenance et cetera. I had requested two vendors to supply me with sample prints. I was excited. I put the proposal to my partner whose first question was “Is this healthy?”
Now there’s a question I had never thought to ask. We design, mould and use these materials every day. Obviously it’s healthy, what could not be? So I started to do a little homework and lo and behold printing in some materials is not healthy. There are vapours and ultrafine particles that are released in the print process and none of these machines, as far as I can find, adequately address this issue. Some have cabinets. Some have filters. However, speaking to the suppliers of these machines, none of the machine designs provide a complete solution yet. Even the HEPA filter fitted in one of the machines only filters a little over 90%.
None of the many suppliers I assessed raise these issues as part of their sales pitch - quite obviously, and possibly some are not even aware of these issues. The supposed solution on the web appears to be to work in adequately ventilated areas and not to use the filaments that give off the most toxins (ABS, HIPS). Is this an adequate solution?
This seems to me to be an unresolved situation and incomplete product design. So until someone can come up with an office or home 3D printer solution that provides adequate safety features, so they are not detrimental to the health of my co-workers and family, I will continue to tell people “My machine is at The Bureau”.