The Future of 3D Printing and Its Impact on Workers’ Safety

Imagine an entire community – an infrastructure of homes, buildings, and even roads – constructed in a matter of hours by one single machine. This may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but it’s actually one of many very real applications currently in development that utilizes 3D printing technology. Of course by now you’ve heard of 3D printing, but what is it exactly? In the most basic sense, 3D printing is the process of taking a computer-aided design of a three-dimensional item, pressing “print”, and having the real thing created right before your eyes. For the past decade, 3D printing has been an exciting medium for artists and makers, plus the occasional manufacturing application of prototypes or model parts. But as 3D printing technology becomes faster, higher quality, and more competitively priced, it has become a staple not only of product development and testing, but of first-run manufacturing and even construction.

That’s right: construction. Jumbo-sized 3D printers, filled with materials like self-setting cement or synthetic stone, are being introduced into the construction industry to create scaffolding, walls, and even entire homes. 3D printed structures are still largely in the testing phase, but there are solutions already underway for low-income and emergency housing, and commercial applications are not far behind. Manufacturers and construction companies alike won’t have to look hard to see the advantages of 3D printing. After all, companies who are currently using them say the process already minimizes construction waste and lowers production time. But could 3D printing also be making the future of the industry a safer place? Or perhaps more dangerous?

With 3D printing, labor costs may be reduced by 50 to 80 percent. That’s no surprise, considering much of the work of laborers would now be completed by a machine. However, often times the work being shifted to the 3D printer is also the most dangerous. The automation inherent to 3D printing takes the worker completely out of the equation.

On the other hand, some say that 3D printing found in manufacturing applications isn’t safe enough to implement yet. 3D printers are hot, high-voltage devices, and they’re being accessed by a new breed of workers who are used to safer office environments. Additionally, airborne emissions and indoor air quality are becoming a growing concern, making risk assessment of on-site devices incredibly important. The 3D printing industry is booming, but we may still be a long ways off from seeing 3D printers on construction sites or as the norm for the manufacturing industry. However knowing a bit about how they work and the promise of their many applications can help us begin to think about their impact on the health and safety of industry workers.

Resources:

http://www.networkcomputing.com/applications/3d-printing-future-safety-comes-first/1107753365 http://www.forbes.com/sites/louiscolumbus/2015/03/31/2015-roundup-of-3d-printing-market-forecasts-and-estimates/#b959f7b1dc67 http://www.forconstructionpros.com/blog/12059477/how-3d-printing-is-affecting-the-construction-industry