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Low-cost, open-source 3D printer looks beyond plastic


December 3, 2013

The metal 3D printer built by a team from Michigan Technological University for under $1,500

The metal 3D printer built by a team from Michigan Technological University for under $1,500

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.

Source: Michigan Technological University

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

This seems like a really good project but I don't understand how the control interface works, the rest seems straight forward enough and I would love to build/have my own 3D metal printer.

My first thought was that I could make parts for the classic cars that I collect and I imagine others reading this will have their own needs and wants and desires. I don't think many people will be making guns with a printer, cheaper to just go out and buy one.

I also can see that there will be the normal amount of finishing on a printed part as when compared to a cast metal part, i.e. grinding, sanding and so on to achieve and acceptable finish.

In the not too distant future I can see that instead of buying a physical item we will download the items file and print it ourselves, this would be a huge saving in freight costs and be much better for the environment.


Facebook User

I imagine there will come a time when the personal ownership of firearms will be illegal, for good or for bad. In those circumstances, one assumes that this technology will only be legally owned by those with a licence to do so and draconian penalties for non-compliance.

We know, thanks in part at least to the efforts of Mr Snowden, that the internet is no longer free, so any attempt to obtain plans for firearms and the like will be spotted by algorithms constructed for that purpose. Whilst one can say that 'where there is a will, there is a way,' the numbers produced will be very small and their production short lived. Since 9/11 there is no doubt that some countries have in place all the legal instruments they need to come down hard on any transgressors on the pretext that they are probably 'terrorists' with no habeas corpus in some countries, just to show how civilised they are.

I imagine that there is a really good business opportunity here. Set up a small workshop equipped with these devices and offer to make unique parts to order. Google or the like might set up a 'cloud' where blueprints can be stored for anything and everything, appended where possible with the instructions for 3D printers to make them.

I hope, but if past experience is any guide, doubt, that all the software to drive these devices is working to the same standard so that any of them can use the same instructions. It will all depend on whether there is a progress prevention officer, sorry, accountant, involved. (Sorry, I am just fed up with being tied to one operating system because I have lots of software that will only run on it! Grrrh!)

Mel Tisdale

"In the not too distant future I can see that instead of buying a physical item we will download the items file and print it ourselves."

It logically flows from this ambition that companies like HP or Epson will soon be selling overpriced cartridges of (for example) Cell Phone Paste.

Hopefully this reveals the impracticality of your ambition in the "not too distant future".

There's no denying the usefulness of 3D printing technology, but extrapolating the hype as you've just done is very naive.


What this actually does is use up expensive welding wire to produce a rough machining blank that has to be further processed using conventional grinding or machining before it is useful.

It would be cheaper, and no harder for the garage hobbyist, to produce the same rough blank by sand casting. The melting would use up far less electricity, and you would have a wider choice of material, not to mention a far higher casting quality.

The real barrier to producing homemade metal parts is in high-precision finishing, not in producing blanks. It appears the developer has eventually realized that they have been following a dead-end street, which is why they open-sourced it. "Hey, we can't think of a way this can be made profitable or useful, so yeah, you can have it".


As someone with a marketing background, the potential I see for 3-D printing (either plastic or metal) will be an increase in the level of customization that will become available for off-the-shelf type products. Previously the high cost of custom tooling, like stamping dies, and machine down-time required for set-up to run unique parts has kept consumer products limited to items with high market volume. Now 3-D printing makes it possible to produce small volume production grade parts at competitive prices. In the future we might order products on-line giving manufacturers specific requirements for ergonomic or appearance features. Imagine ordering a new car and customizing the dashboard design and layout to meet your individual taste and needs.


It may be cheap and easy to buy a gun in the USA instead of printing one, but in most other countries it's not.

In fact, in most other countries it's very difficult and costly to buy a gun due to all the red tape. And buying a hand gun is even harder and more costly than buying a rifle.

That makes 3D metal printers a serious concern in most countries other than the USA.


A great step forward in printing. for their prototype they should consider adding sand as a support media for the liquid metal that is produced. The sand could be applied a grain or two above the desired location of the metal. Melting the metal will displace the few grains of sand occupying the spot. They also have a problem with a ground. Plasma welder may fix that. Look into the research to use a laser welder to add material to shafts. the issue is preventing the metal drops from flowing away which is your big problem. They may have found solutions.

Thomas Sutrina

Star trek rules. This one show has and still is changing the world for the better.

Paul Adams

So it's essentially a CNC MIG welder laying down a series of thin pad welds, Is that right?


The people here have shown there are problems, but let's face it, it is a 1st Generation version that a garage tinkerer can afford. Consider how the 3D plastic printer started, people will take the idea and run with it, improving with each innovation. 3-5-10 years, who knows what will become of plastic or metal printers?

The Skud

3D-Printing utilizing available special elements and materials to create a particular component for specialized applications, will be a boon to the independent Inventor. Relevant commentaries acknowledge that 'finishing' to close fit and tolerances, essentially will be the next challenge. As have other technological challenges heretofore, - these will be overcome and resolved with progression and advancements which are inevitable in science. In the interim however, - there invariably will be some visionaries who will perceive great opportunities for custom work, and likewise, waiting in the wings, entrepreneurs to take up the challenge to provide what the market demands!

Robert Gillis

3D Printing hype 1.0 We can print anything (cars, houses, phones, toys, toothpicks etc)........BUT it costs more, is not really a metal or plastic, cannot be used in real life, is limited on size, is distorted, is contaminated, is not aluminum, is not smooth, is not water tight ....

3DPrinting 2.0 Best - cnc machining Great - casting Good - Forging Poor - 3D printing Build a cnc mini machine and you can add a 3 d print head ..... that you will probably never use again. You will make amazing functional parts in all kinds of real materials. The only difference is the spindle motor vs print head.

Yes there are some fine reslolution SLM and metal sintered machines that can create some very cool and special applications, but in the end printing will fall into the manufacturing Eco system..where total lowest cost will prevail. A metal bracket for a car door will forever be forged, bent or cast. A printed metal part requires 1 day per inch to make, and then always machined and then finished hence cannot compete in mass production. It can however be used tomake the casting blank, or mold etc


Were this done in either a vat of oil or water, much like EDM, the consistency of the bead could be greatly improved and negate the need for gas. I find this technology very relevant if the resolution can be improved. This would be very helpful in small to medium parts out of any conductive metal.


3D plastic printing will create a huge market for lightweight desk-top machine tools, since most mechanical components can be made from ultra-resistant plastics like Delrin -- with the same control software as for professional CNC machines, e.g. Fanuc, since software copies cost almost nothing.

Not quite the toy CNC machine tool for this Christmas -- but certainly a good idea for a Christmas gift in the not too distant future...

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