It represents a huge breakthrough in the way companies manufacture goods. But are companies brushing worker health fears over 3D printing under the rug as they race to embrace the new technology?
3D printing has revolutionised the way manufacturers design, create and produce goods, leading to increased efficiency for companies across the world. From Adidas designing new shoes to surgeons creating custom-made implants, each sector can benefit from the groundbreaking technology.
3D printing heralds a shift in the way companies manufacture goods. It will enable companies to customise production and make parts in local markets, reducing the reliance on timely, costly, overseas supply chains. While 3D printing brings huge advantages and opportunities, it also presents emerging risks, particularly concerning worker health and safety.
The global 3D printing market is expected to reach $41 billion in value by 2026, according to Acumen Research and Consulting. The technology is growing at an annual compound growth rate of more than 20%, according to the advisory firm’s latest study. In the automotive, manufacturing, industrial, consumer and aerospace sectors, 3D printing has been transformational. Insurers argue that organisations are slow to recognise the potential risks.
In a recent white paper, global insurer AIG outlined some of the key risks facing companies using the technology. The insurer believes the issue of worker safety has received “limited attention”, as companies race to use the new technology, also known as additive manufacturing, to their advantage. The AIG paper warns that 3D printing presents “new angles on existing worker risks, such as raw material exposure, the use of new machines, and the handling of in-process and finished goods”.
AIG believes organisations should consider these unknowns as they embrace the new technology.
Risk managers will need to consider several emerging risks as their organisations use 3D printing technologies. “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,” the insurer says.
AIG is working with Praedicat, a tech company specialised in spotting harmful substances, to identify health risks from 3D printing. Its research indicates that some materials used in additive printing “have the potential to cause worker injuries”.
The firm implores risk managers to take the issue seriously. AIG’s report states there are several potential health risks associated with 3D printing. Inhalation of ultrafine metal and other nanoparticles, along with volatile organic compounds, have the potential to cause “adverse health impacts” such as lung and nervous system injury, mental impairment, various forms of cancer and hearing loss.
Amid these early findings, AIG has urged caution among the risk management community. “While the science is in different states of maturity, some exposure and disease combinations are well- supported while others continue to develop.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
AIG wants organisations to take “a proactive approach” to managing worker safety, and has called on companies to “review the science” and “adjust manufacturing processes accordingly”.
It said: “For example, elimination or substitution might be considered when the scientific evidence indicates the risk of using a specific agent is particularly high. For all agents, common worker safety processes and engineering controls can be applied to additive manufacturing, such as proper ventilation, system enclosures, rotating worker shifts and using proper respirator equipment.”
While organisations should take steps to mitigate production risks, they must also consider the ecological and environmental impact of waste products from the 3D printing process.
AIG says businesses must “utilise proper disposal techniques to avoid environmental contamination, and protect those workers charged with the disposal and removal of residue or equipment”. They should also “have a broad worker safety programme, and address common worker safety risks”.