3D printing and product safety

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What will 3D printing of consumer goods mean for product safety?

Imagine these possibilities –

  • Manufacture your own plastic toys from yours or someone else’s designs – for your kids to play with, or to create your own little retail business . . .
  • Make a part for you washing machine instead of throwing it on the junk heap because the part is no longer made . . .
  • Invent a whole new product, make it in your garage and start selling it online . . .
  • Re-design existing products – for variety, for better utility, for different uses, to fix something you’ve always hated . . .

3D printing makes all these things possible and it’s affordable now – for homes, offices and factories . . .

3D printing is still in its early days in terms of wide public use and knowledge, but 3D printing has the potential to turn production and supply on its head.

And it has the potential to have a big impact on product safety in ways we have barely begun to think about.

I have written a White Paper: 3D Printing and Consumer Product Safety to explain and explore how this big new wave will impact the safety of consumer goods.

What is 3D printing?

Also known as ‘additive manufacturing’, 3D printing uses a data model to build successive layers of raw material, such as plastic, until a 3D shape is made.

The possibilities are enormous. Some sectors, such as medical and automotive have been using additive manufacturing methods for some time and it’s becoming increasingly sophisticated.

Up til now, the role of 3D printing in consumer products has been mostly limited to modelling and prototypes. But the world is opening up for designers, producers and consumers themselves.

Democratisation of production and supply

In the same way that e-commerce has enabled new market entrants and new means of supply, 3D printing has the potential to change the way products are made and distributed.

The internet has allowed democratisation of consumer product supply. 3D printing will allow democratisation of consumer product manufacture.

The rise of the ‘Prosumer’

In the 1980 book, The Third Wave, futurologist Alvin Toffler coined the term “prosumer” when he predicted that the role of producers and consumers would begin to blur and merge. The term seems very apt for consumer 3D printing.

People will increasingly be able to own their own 3D printer at home, which will allow them to manufacture objects of their own design, or from a design downloaded from online. The possibilities will open up for new designers, ‘prosumers’ and businesses including those in remote locations and developing nations.

Entry level 3D printing machines are increasingly affordable. I visited the Sydney 2014 National Manufacturing Week expo. A number of machines were on display including this modest sized one for under AU$700.


Gail Greatorex with 3D printer

Me with a consumer level printer at the manufacturing week expo

3D printed action figure

Friend and colleague Justin Lucas at the expo with 3D printed action figure

More recently, 3D printers have started appearing for $US500 with predictions of lower prices on the way.

Scanning technology also allow 3D design specifications to be created by scanning existing products. As the technology becomes more affordable, the possibilities with this kind of production seem limitless.

And in addition to products themselves, an increasing number of design specifications are available for spare parts

Supplier businesses

As well as consumers owning their own 3D machines, new market entrants will emerge – both as manufacturers and as distributors.

While 3D printing may never be viable for mass production, there is a raft of lower volume products for which 3D printing is ideal.

As production speeds are enhanced, costs reduced and capabilities expanded, 3D printing could have significant benefits for both manufacturers and consumers.

Some 3D printed products may be made with fewer parts making them more sturdy, reliable and durable.

What does it mean for consumer product safety?

 Some benefits of 3D printing

Some product safety benefits that I can envisage are:

  • It is easier and cheaper to revise and refine product prototypes – to try out a design and improve it before going into production
  • It will enable more localised production and distribution for some products, reducing the size of the supply chain and allowing better safety and quality controls
  • Custom-made products will provide consumers with products designed for their own ergonomic needs, which will enhance utility and safety

Is there a downside?

As with many innovations, for all the positive applications, there can be new dangers. Some things to watch out for include:

  • New entrants into production and supply will not be experienced or aware of product standards, regulations or hazard reduction
  • Both physical and chemical hazards may be created in products through home and small business 3D production
  • Designers may not be as cognisant of safety principles for product design and hazard mitigation (eg. warnings, instructions)
  • Standards won’t keep up, or be as easily applied given the variability of 3D printing designs and materials
  • Pop-up factories and suppliers may become prevalent in the market, including some rogue operators
  • Incorrect parts created for existing products may render them unsafe
  • The quality of raw materials may be not be subject to checks

Addressing the emerging challenges

The product safety issues listed above are not necessarily new, but all those with an interest in consumer safety will need to work out how to meet the challenges of 3D printing.

As with all product safety measures, all sectors need to play a part. A raft of strategies is needed from within the 3D printing industry, the supply sector, governments, educators and consumers.

White paper

For more detail on the points covered in this blog read Product Safety Solutions’ White Paper, 3D Printing and Consumer Product SafetFront cover of 3D Printing White Papery which also contains a range of strategies and recommendations to help all relevant players get consumer product safety squarely on the 3D printing agenda.

An infographic poster is also available

And media releases

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See related blog articles:

A faulty 3D printed gun – Who’s responsible?

3D printing – Call for action on product safety