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Tackling the risks of 3D printing

New manufacturing technology is bringing significant opportunities but also new risks, with worker safety a key area of focus writes Simon Gallimore, Head of the Manufacturing Industry Practice Group

Topic Manufacturers

Component designers

The rise of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, will revolutionize global commerce. By the end of 2016, annual revenues from the global 3D printing market were estimated at US$13.2b, a figure that is set to rise to US$28.9b by 2020, according to Statista.

Click here to read our full report on 3D Printing & Additive Manufacturing

Companies will begin to shift away from standardised products, produced in massive factories, thousands of miles away from the point-of-sale. Retailers and consumers will likely take a bigger role – producing products in small batches on-demand, reducing unit costs, increasing customisation and driving significant demand for software, hardware and production materials. The days of ordering a part and waiting for it to be produced by a far-flung factory, loaded on a ship or aeroplane and moved across the world are numbered.

In 2015, Adidas announced that it successfully produced a 3D printed running shoe with a customised mid-sole based on a digital assessment of a runner’s anatomy and running characteristics. At the same time, General Electric reportedly produced a fuel nozzle for its LEAP jet engine via additive material layering which replaces traditional casting and fusing of twenty parts, with a nozzle that is 25% lighter and five times more durable. This equates to roughly US$3m of savings per aircraft, per year. These examples paint a vibrant picture of future manufacturing – highly efficient, customised, localised, waste-minimising, and technologically driven. 

New risks

However, as with any technological revolution, the benefits are balanced with risks. These can broadly be classified by stakeholder group – raw material suppliers, intermediate and finished goods manufacturers, software and hardware developers, workers, consumers, and communities. Much of the early research has focused on manufacturing quality, comparing 3D printed materials and products against more traditional methods. The core focus is material science and polymer physics to better assess physical properties such as shear, compression, durability and tensile strength.

One area that has received limited attention thus far is worker safety. 3D printing presents new angles on existing worker risks such as raw material exposure, the use of new machines, and handling of in-process and finished goods. In our discussions with leading additive manufacturers, some note that workers are exposed to “significant amounts of dust” via newly designed manufacturing processes. Risk managers are wrestling with this new exposure and seeking information and practices to reduce uncertainty and manage risk.

Our research indicates that some commonly used additive manufacturing materials have the potential to cause worker injuries. This includes the inhalation of ultrafine metal and other nanoparticles along with volatile organic compounds that have the potential to cause adverse health impacts such as lung and nervous system injury, mental impairment, various forms of cancer, and hearing loss. While the science is in different states of maturity, some exposure and disease combinations are well-supported while others continue to develop.

A proactive approach to risk management

Businesses using additive manufacturing need to take a proactive approach to managing worker safety by reviewing the science and adjusting manufacturing processes accordingly. For example, elimination or substitution might be considered when the scientific evidence indicates the risk of using a specific agent is particularly high. This essentially means that if the hazard can be removed or a less hazardous material can be used in place of a more hazardous one, then that is the safest course of action. Of course, this may not often be feasible, since a substituted material has to meet the same performance requirements as the original to ensure the end product performs as required.

Common worker safety processes and engineering controls should be applied such as proper ventilation, system enclosures, rotating worker shifts, and the use of proper respirator equipment. Businesses should also use proper disposal techniques to avoid environmental contamination and protect those workers charged with the disposal and removal of residue or equipment. These activities, in combination with a broader worker safety programme, will address the most common worker safety risks.

The current and potential applications of additive manufacturing span virtually all industries including many sectors and businesses that were never previously involved in manufacturing, such as retailers and service businesses. In one example, Dubai-based construction firm Cazza is working with the UAE government to pursue a goal of 3D printing 25% of the country’s buildings by 2030.

Non-traditional manufacturers may lack familiarity with general manufacturing practices and the hierarchy of controls regarding worker safety and exposure control. Employers new to this field will need to investigate and implement the controls that will be most relevant to their operations to minimise the risk to their employees and nearby third parties.

The market for 3D printing will continue to grow dramatically – the number of 3D printers shipped globally is expected to reach to 6.7 million by 2020, up from fewer than 220,000 in 2015.  As manufacturers move quickly to embrace this new form of commerce, they must do it in a way that also prioritises the safety of their workers.

This article originally appeared in Insurance Day on 5 March 2018.