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3D printing has started breaking through into the mainstream in recent years, with some modern models even becoming affordable enough for home use. However, it’s in schools, colleges and universities where the widest number of people are being introduced to the kinds of industry-quality 3D printers that promise to one day revolutionise manufacturing.

The commercial potential is enormous – and for the would-be product designers of the future, the creative applications are incredibly exciting. But the risks to students’ health are also significant. So, with the rise of 3D printing in schools, we thought it was time to look at the benefits of 3D printing in education with a focus on the relevant safety concerns around 3D printers.

But before that, we need to ask…

How does 3D printing work?

First, an operator scans a real-life object to create a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) file, which slices up the design into horizontal layers. The 3D printer then uses this file as a blueprint to build a real-life physical object one layer at a time from melted-down filament made from materials like plastic, rubber and metal.

How can 3D printers be used for educational purposes?

The applications of 3D printing are many and varied. They could include:

  • Producing scientific models for science lessons
  • Printing historical artefacts for history classes
  • Making models that slot together to form complex physical maths problems
  • Using maps to bring terrain to life for geography classes
  • Plus, simply giving students their first exposure to what’s sure to be a technology of the future.

3D printing can be an exciting way to spark creativity and adds to the curriculum by giving students a chance to help create their own learning materials. As mentioned, however, it’s not without safety concerns.

Which leads us to ask…

Should you worry about 3D printer fumes?

Are 3D printer fumes toxic? In a word, yes – enough to invest in appropriate fume extraction equipment.

When 3D printers melt filament, they emit fumes with toxic elements that can get into the breathing zone of anyone using them. The bigger the 3D object being printed, the more those substances melt and the higher the fume quota.

In turn, that begs the question…

Just how toxic are 3D printer fumes?

Close up of 3d printer printing a metal piece

The answer is simply: some are more toxic than others.

One of the least toxic comes from what is understandably one of the most popular filament materials, polylactic acid. It’s made from natural sources like sugarcane and maise and gives off a largely non-toxic substance known as lactide. That being said, inhaling large amounts of lactide can still be problematic. (There’s no such thing as a 3D printer fume that doesn’t require some sort of extraction solution).

Other well-used filament materials can be significantly more hazardous. Both nylon and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (commonly known as ABS) give off fumes laced with styrene, a suspected carcinogen. Indeed, in one study by America’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), FDM printer fumes made up in part of ABS caused significant damage to lung cells within just three hours.

Do you need 3D printer extraction for your school or business?

The number one thing to consider when getting a 3D printer for a school (or any other environment) is mitigating the risks with at-source extraction. At VODEX, our solutions commonly use a combination of gas and HEPA filters to ensure harmful particulate is pulled out of the air. They protect the lungs of anyone in the immediate vicinity and keep the establishment in question COSHH compliant.

If you need at-source extraction for 3D printers, you can view our range here. Alternatively, contact us and we’ll help you find the option that suits you best.

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