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  • Charlie Kocur

Is 3D printing safe?

Safety first!

3D printing can be an extremely rewarding hobby. It combines creativity, technology, engineering and problem solving into one really fun hobby.

With 3D printers being more affordable than ever before and with how interesting of a hobby it can be, many more people are making the commitment and purchasing their own 3D printer for home use. While it can be tons of fun there are some things to be aware of to make sure your hobby is done safely for you and your family.

In this article, we will discuss common concerns about the safety of 3D printing and we will take a look at each individual issue. We will cover problems like fire hazards, chemical fumes, burns, and electric shocks. While this sounds scary don't let it discourage you at all. As with many other hobbies, there are very simple precautions you can take to make sure that 3D printing will remain a completely safe hobby in your own home.

I would also like to preface this with the fact that I am NOT a professional. Please seek more professional advice if you are concerned with any of these topics. I'm simply a hobbyist who practices these safety techniques when I use my 3D printer.


Fire Hazard

The Problem - Fire Hazard

I'm going to start with probably the most important safety hazard on this list, fires. I'm going to go over causes of fires from 3D printers as well as things you can do to prevent them.

While 3D printers do run hot, they don't quite get to temperatures that should instantly ignite materials during normal operation. For the sake of simplicity we will focus on commonly used home 3D printer materials, PLA and ABS plastic. ABS when compared to PLA filament must be printed at a higher temperature. ABS prints at about 230 to 240 degrees Celsius. This is around 400 degrees Fahrenheit. This gets very close if not crosses the line at a temperature at which paper will burn. For additional reference, PLA usually is printed at about 200 degrees Celsius (about 392 degrees Fahrenheit).

So the first obvious precaution is, don't keep anything flammable near your printer! While the heat is very contained within the print-head if all things are working properly, it's not worth the risk to keep your printer near a stack of old magazines or newspapers!

Another more pressing danger though, is a runaway heat source. The part on a 3D printer that monitors the temperature is called a thermistor. This thermistor monitors the temperature at which the printer is at and if it's too low the machine will apply an electrical current to make sure that maintains the proper temperature. On occasion there can be errors in this process. Issues like broken wires can make the thermistor think that the printer is not heating up or is not at the high enough temperature when in actuality it is.

How does a thermistor react when it thinks the print-head is too cool? It will continually apply an electrical current to heat up the nozzle. As you can see, a faulty thermistor that reports a low reading can quickly cause a problem with a runaway increase in heat. This means that until something gives out, the printer is just going to continue to heat itself more and more. For obvious reasons this can turn bad quickly.

The materials you are printing with and even the printer itself may have components that can catch fire if things get hot enough. It's possible that a blocked nozzle from burnt filament can get stuck causing filament to push out of areas it's not supposed to in the extruder, forming a big ball of plastic goop. If this happens that big ball of goop may catch fire eventually and can spread the things nearby. It's also possible that portions of the printer itself can melt and/or catch fire if this gets too out of hand.

The other cause for fire can be a short somewhere along the printer's wiring, sparking a flame. For example there was an issue with my particular model of printer where a spring use to hold the bed could potentially poke through and create a connection between the heater wiring and another metal plate, causing Sparks or even a fire. There are also occasionally a bad production run of a printer or electrical component within. So make sure to be regularly checking forums for your model of printer to ensure you catch any recalls or fire hazards that might come up with your version.

Do a search for 3D printer fire and you will find several examples of issues that caused a significant home fire. As you can see it's something not to be messed with however don't let it scare you away I'm taking on 3D printing as a hobby.

The Solution - Fire Hazards

The first and most important thing you can do is to stay nearby while your printer is running and have a plan in place in case a fire does happen. I know it can be extremely difficult to stay nearby when prints take so long , however make it a habit to ensure that at least somebody is home and can keep an eye on things. I've even planned extremely long prints over a weekend so I can stay up most of the night to be available to monitor. I get pretty serious about watching this, especially when I have a relatively cheap printer where some of the parts may not be the finest quality.

Another key way to make sure your printer isn't going to burn things down is to keep up with regular maintenance. Clear away any old plastic, make sure the nozzle is clear, and do a good visual inspection every couple of months to make sure that all visible wire connections are looking solid. in addition, make sure to monitor the heat that the printer is putting out. If you see that the print-head or heated bed temperature fluctuates wildly while the print is happening, it may be a sign that there is a loose or damaged wire that should be addressed immediately before using the printer again.

Also, I recommend keeping a fire extinguisher for electronics nearby. I keep a small handheld fire extinguisher in my office next to the cabinet where I keep my 3D printer. If there's any sign of smoke I know that I can quickly grab it and take care of things before the fire spreads it makes a small inconvenience a major disaster. One other precaution I take, is to make sure my smoke detectors are working, and that there is one in the area where my printer is.

By taking these precautions, you can keep yourself ready to prevent any fire hazards that a 3D printer might cause.


Chemical Fumes

The Problem - Chemical Fumes

The next major issue that arises been thinking about 3D printer safety is the amount of fumes the process gives off. Keep in mind that in order to 3D print something your printer is melting plastic. As most people know, fumes from burning or melting plastic are not good for you can cause some serious health problems if exposed overtime. All of that said, it's very important to know what material you are printing in to make sure that you've got the proper protections in place.

We will start with PLA material. As a quick summary, PLA filament is basically made from plant starches, most commonly from sugar cane or corn. It's used in many food-safe applications in its pure form like biodegradable plastic cups.

PLA is an extremely common material because it's so easy to work with. It prints at a relatively low temperature, although still hot enough that you need be careful.. Burning PLA in its pure form does not give off any overly-noxious fumes. While of course you wouldn't want to inhale any smoke, it's more or less like burning sugar and does not contain anything super dangerous on its own.

Wow! That sounds great, so you're saying I can burn this no problem in my house and hover over it while sniffing the fumes? No, that's not at all what I'm saying. But even if PLA in its pure form somehow burn without any smoke or vapors being given off, you still have to account for the materials that you don't know are in the plastic. Additives that give PLA filament its properties like color or shine is what to be more concerned about. Any colors or composite materials like wood or glitter are most likely not as safe to burn as PLA itself is. So even though you hear about how PLA is "green", keep in mind that the other materials that are mixed in may not be.

Next, we will quickly touch-on ABS filament. ABS is a much more dangerous plastic to be melting and breathing indoors. Excellent ventilation is required as this can release some seriously unfriendly chemicals in to the air.

The Solution - Chemical Fumes

Ventilation! Make sure that you're not sitting extremely close to your printer, and do your best to crack a window open and get some fresh air in. Melting any kind of plastic in the home isn't ideal, but if you have an indoor 3D print lab like myself, make sure to set it up near a window to allow ease of access to clean, fresh air.


Other Concerns

So far we've covered the few major concerns to be aware of when using a 3D printer in the house. There are a few other small considerations where are some common sense is all you need. These issues are also pretty minor. While for the most part they will be an inconvenience there is still the potential for some considerable danger if you're not careful.

The Problem - Burns

First small problem to be aware of is burning yourself. Printers work at extremely hot temperatures, about two-times hotter than boiling water for even the lowest temperature PLA filaments to work. Obviously, if you touch an active printer in the wrong spot you will give yourself a nasty burn.

The Solution - Burns

The safest way to tackle this problem is by simply making sure your machine is turned off if you're working near the hot end. There are some instances when this is impossible, like when you're are loading in new filament, the hot end must be active and close to printing temperature so the filament can be set in place. In those instances make sure to take your time. Don't rush and be aware of the parts of the printer that are hot. Primarily, just stay away from the bottom of the extruder assembly since generally that's where all of the hot parts are.

The Problem - Electric Shock

The next issue to be aware of is electric shock. While burns can hurt, electricity is something that shouldn't be messed with since it can cause lasting damage or even kill you in many circumstances.

As should be obvious, 3D printers work using electricity to drive the various components. A significant amount of electricity can go in to this, and if you're working on any part of the wiring, especially near where the plug connects to the power supply, you must be careful.

The Solution - Electric Shock

Just like anything else that you work on around your house which runs on electricity, make sure to unplug your printer before doing any work requiring access to electrical components on your 3D printer. This includes maintenance of the wires or any time there is a need to open up be control box that would usually houses the power supply and main motherboard. These could be extremely dangerous components so again take your time when working on them and always, always unplug so you don't end up with a nasty shock or worse.


To Conclude

I hope that after this article I didn't scare anyone away from 3D printing. Instead this was simply meant to raise awareness of common issues and risks and more importantly how to prevent those things from happening. 3D printing is very safe if you purchase a reputable machine and keep up on its maintenance. It's an extremely rewarding hobby and easy to do safely, and all it take is a little common sense.

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