March 25, 2015
3D printing has fast become the 'it' technology associated with innovation. For every example of a manufacturer that's achieved significant design savings and time-to-market advantages thanks to 3D printing, there's a feel-good story about how the technology has facilitated never-been-done-before medical procedures or been the catalyst for cost-effective custom prosthetics.
Despite all its promise, 3D printing is still relatively immature when it comes to safety and quality control standards compared to more traditional manufacturing processes. That's according to UL, a quality and safety services organization committed to establishing a roadmap for 3D printing technology in the hopes of furthering its use.
“We believe additive manufacturing is a catalyst to enable unique products to be made and for new opportunities for companies and individuals interested in design,” said Simin Zhou, UL's vice president, digital manufacturing technologies. “We want to make sure the infrastructure is there to bring the technology to market safety.”
To do so, UL is working with a variety of companies—from 3D printer manufacturers, which it declined to name, to institutions like AmericaMakes, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and the University of Louisville. The company is looking to establish compliance guidelines, a quality assurance framework, material search and training tools, among other best practices, to balance safety concerns surrounding 3D printing technology with the industry's rapid pace of innovation.
The company's efforts fall into three categories, Zhou said.
- It's working with equipment and materials manufacturers to establish standards and quality benchmarks to advance the performance of products and make them best serve customers. As part of this program, UL released a 3D printing compliance guideline last year to help educate manufacturers on such issues as proper temperature controls, safety failover mechanisms, and materials and emissions. “We're working with companies to ensure they keep making their products better and safer,” Zhou explained.
- The company is also promoting initiatives for workforce development to train end user companies in how to best leverage 3D printing in design and engineering. In that vein, UL recently announced an online 3D printing course, “Foundations of 3D printing,” geared to professional engineers and designers to provide basic knowledge of the industry, including hardware and software and applications.
- For the third leg of its efforts, UL is developing a product safety and quality framework for 3D printing applications designed to help companies make the leap from using 3D printing for prototyping to leveraging the technology for production use. “There isn't the same rigor around materials analysis, quality testing and quality assurance so we're developing production standards for 3D printed parts,” she said. Some of the work in this area involves making it easier to prepare digital files for printing and other best practices to ensure scalable and repeatable processes.
Below is a corporate overview video produced by UL to provide some background on the organization.