Low-cost, open-source 3D printer looks beyond plastic
By Darren Quick
December 3, 2013
With 3D printers dropping below the US$200 mark, the home 3D printing revolution appears to be getting into full swing, which is great ... if you want to make things out of plastic. Unfortunately, the price of commercial metal 3D printers means the ability to print metal objects has remained out of reach of most people. That could be set to change with a team from Michigan Technical University building a 3D metal printer for under $1,500.
The 3D printer was created by Joshua Pearce, an Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and his team from parts including a small commercial MIG welder and an open-source microcontroller. It forms complex geometric shapes by laying down thin layers of steel, but Pearce admits the printer is still a work in progress, with a sprocket the most intricate piece the printer has produced so far. That's where the open-source nature of the device comes in.
Pearce and his team have made everything required to build the printer, including detailed plans, software and firmware, freely available. They hope that this will see the metal 3D printer quickly evolve to a much more capable device.
"Similar to the incredible churn in innovation witnessed with open-sourcing of the first RepRap plastic 3D printers, I anticipate rapid progress when the maker community gets their hands on it," says Pearce. "Within a month, somebody will make one that’s better than ours, I guarantee it."
Although the sub-$1,500 price tag puts the metal 3D printer within the reach of home users, Pearce warns that it would be better suited to a shop, garage or skilled DIYer due to the requirement for safety gear and fire protection equipment – things which aren't a concern with a typical plastic 3D printer.
Pearce was also concerned about the potential for homemade firearms, which have already been 3D printed in both plastic and metal, but he believes the benefits of distributed manufacturing 3D printing technology brings will far outweigh the potential dangers. He and his team have previously conducted research, which showed that making products at home on a 3D printer is cheaper and greener than buying certain commercial goods.
"Small and medium-sized enterprises would be able to build parts and equipment quickly and easily using downloadable, free and open-source designs, which could revolutionize the economy for the benefit of the many," he says. "I really don’t know if we are mature enough to handle it, but I think that with open-source approach, we are within reach of a Star Trek-like, post-scarcity society, in which ‘replicators’ can create a vast array of objects on demand, resulting in wealth for everyone at very little cost. Pretty soon, we’ll be able to make almost anything."
The information needed to build your own metal 3D printer can be found here.