There seems to be a growing trend among 3D printer companies to glance hopefully at schools in search of good customers and to develop devices especially designed for the sector of education. But are 3D printers suitable for children?

3D printing can help children in their intellectual development. They become acquainted with the process of designing and producing things. These skills will then pay off for the rest of their lives, both in their personal needs, as well as in professional life. By operating in a 3D design environment children strengthen their capacity for spatial and logical intelligence. The whole thing sounds really good. Unfortunately, some of the issues associated with health risks should at least make us think again whether a working 3D printer is a device that could even be standing anywhere near children.

The toxicity of materials that are used in 3D printing varies depending on the how much attention the manufacturer pays to the quality the dyes and the overall environmental aspect of the material. Toxic fumes can get into children’s noses, which are usually located right by the working heads. Some of the activities performed during subsequent processing of prints can also be completely unacceptable in the presence of children. In other words, some technologies are not suitable for children in any way, except possibly watching the printing process through a window (e.g., SLA), some are acceptable only with safe, organic materials (e.g., FDM).

Even if the material is as safe as possible in terms of toxicity, the thermal treatment which takes place during the extrusion from the printhead produces so many nanoparticles that no one, especially a child, should be exposed to their presence. We are quite lucky that the awareness of this fact has grown sufficiently that it is taken into account when designing 3D printers models, with enclosed chambers and ventilation systems. However, we should make sure that if our children’s school commissions a 3D printer, it also meets this safety criterion.

Moving, hot parts in the presence of a child may also be a problem. The smaller the child, the bigger the problem. Actually, we may as well claim right away that children under a certain age should not even enter the room where a printer is located, lest they be tempted to check that strange moving thing that is squeaking so funny. In other words, the printers in the nursery are a big, firm no no!

3D printers are not reliable and easy to use. Fixing a faltering printer might be easy, provided that you know what to do. Otherwise, you might as well start repairing a space shuttle. What is worse, a printer which works just as it should, could really disappoint when it comes to the quality of the printout. As long as the printers do not become as reliable and effortless as washing machines, better reconsider whether it is sensible to discourage children to 3D printing at the start.

To sum up, the access to 3D printers is a good idea under certain conditions. The children can not be too young, at least 7/8 years old. Using the printer must absolutely be done under the supervision of an adult who knows his 3D printer and is aware of the potential risks. The printers and the premises in which they are kept must meet a few simple criteria, such as some physical separation of children from possible vapours, nanoparticles and the moving hot-end, as well as an adequate ventilation of the place.

So, if you ever see a 3D printer in a school workshop, look at it with a critical eye in terms of health and safety. Especially in the case of primary schools.

Bartosz Kuczyński
Translator, lecturer and creator of didactic games in company Luderis. Increased a potential of 3D printers in 2012.

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