Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 4, 2018.

3D Printers Go Mainstream

As the devices become more popular with students, campus officials raise concerns over fire, ventilation, and other safety issues


As 3D printers become more popular, college safety officials say they’re seeing more of the devices pop up on campuses—and that’s raising concerns about student health and fire safety.

“Right now we’re seeing a lot of requests for 3D printers to be used in common spaces, such as for student-run clubs and organizations and within specialty housing like the engineering house,” said Jody Nolan, a fire and occupational safety specialist at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in upstate New York and a member of the Center for Campus Fire Safety.

Three-hundred miles away, at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst, officials are dealing with students who want to put the devices in their dorm rooms, said Michael Swain, fire prevention services supervisor at UMass, who also serves as the president of the Center for Campus Fire Safety. “From a fire safety standpoint there are several concerns,” Swain wrote in an email to NFPA Journal. “First, the printers can create a pretty good amount of heat. Another issue is the extended amount of time that the printer will continuously run during a printing session. The last concern would be storage of the materials used in the printer and any [combustible] dust that may be created.”

Although 3D printing—an additive manufacturing process in which a material like plastic or metal is added in layers until a pre-designed item is complete—has been around since the 1980s, only in recent years have 3D printers become widely available and attainable. Desktop 3D printers, as they’re called, currently sell on Amazon for as little as $130—many fall in the $200 to $300 range—and can be especially appealing to students pursuing degrees in engineering who buy them for personal use. Students may use them to design items for courses or for recreation; for example, “20 Awesome 3D Printing Ideas for Students and Dorm Rooms,” an online article published last year, includes downloadable designs for items like pencil holders, storage bins, and coasters that keep plastic cups upright during games of beer pong. Publicly available designs aren’t always so innocuous though. In recent months, state and federal legislators have voiced concerns over the potential for people to access designs for creating guns with 3D printers, leading several states to pursue bans on the publication of such designs.

Online forums about college life are already populated with posts by prospective students inquiring about keeping 3D printers in their dorm rooms, and even posts by exasperated students who’ve been told by university officials to remove the printers.

The concerns about the use of 3D printers on campuses range from the potentially harmful gases emitted by the plastics used in desktop 3D printers to the combustible dusts created by the metals used in larger, more expensive models.

A study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2016 found that the plastics used in desktop 3D printers can produce hazardous volatile organic compounds, and recommended that these printers be used in well-ventilated areas. This is why part of RIT’s process for approving 3D printer locations includes checking for proper ventilation, Nolan said. In many college dormitories, though, windows do not open fully to prevent students from falling or jumping out. On Reddit, a popular website where users submit content, 3D printer enthusiasts have shared stories about how using printers in poorly ventilated areas has given them headaches, coughs, and other symptoms. “Printing nylon is NASTY,” one user wrote. “I’ve had a cough for two weeks.”

For 3D printers that use metals—devices that are larger, more expensive, and more likely to be found in lab environments on campus—the main concern is combustible dust, said Mike Halligan, a veteran college campus safety specialist who heads Underwriters Laboratories’ Building Inspections division for the Americas. He’s fielded many questions from college safety officials about how to keep spaces containing 3D printers safe.

“I tell them they need to look at the resins and metals they plan to use and determine if they’re reactive or combustible,” Halligan said. “They need to make sure they have a fire extinguisher rated for fires involving those kinds of materials, that the printers are installed according to manufacturer’s recommendations and relevant codes like NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®, and that people using the printers understand all of the hazards involved and wear the proper personal protective equipment.”

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images