US researchers share plans for low-cost metal 3D printer


US researchers share plans for low-cost metal 3D printer

Warwick Ashford

Researchers at Michigan Technological University (MTU) have developed a low-cost 3D printer capable of producing steel objects.

Low-cost 3D printing, which creates objects layer by layer, has been restricted to polymers to create objects such as chess sets, toys, Christmas decorations and mobile phone covers.

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But the team led by MTU’s associate professor Joshua Pearce has cut the cost of making a 3D metal printer to around £900, compared with £300,000 for commercial metal printers.

Better still, the detailed plans, software and firmware are all freely available and open source, so anyone can use them to make their own metal 3D printer.

But Pearce said the printer is a work in progress. So far, the products he and his team have produced are no more intricate than a sprocket.

“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,” said Pearce.

“Within a month, somebody will make one that’s better than ours, I guarantee it,” he said.

The prototype 3D printer, which uses an open source microcontroller, can lay down thin layers of steel to form complex geometric objects.

Although the build-it-yourself printer is less expensive than off-the-shelf commercial plastic 3D printers and affordable enough for home use, Pearce warns that it requires more safety gear and fire protection equipment than the typical plastic 3D printer.

While metal 3D printing opens new vistas, it also raises anew concerns about home-made firearms. Some people have already made guns with both commercial metal and plastic 3D printers, with mixed results.

I anticipate rapid progress when the maker community gets their hands on it. Within a month, somebody will make one that's better than ours

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As a result, US Congress has approved a 10-year extension of the 1988 ban on plastic guns and the UK’s Home Office has updated the rules around the 1968 Firearms Act to prohibit the manufacture, sale, purchase and possession of weapons made by printing their components, unless properly licensed.

Recognising these concerns, Pearce believes that the good to come from all types of distributed manufacturing with 3D printing will far outweigh the dangers.

In previous work, his group has already shown that making products at home with a 3D printer is cheaper for the average American and that printing goods at home is greener than buying commercial goods.

Pearce said expanded 3D printing will benefit people in the developing world, who have limited access to manufactured 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 revolutionise the economy for the benefit of many,” he said.

Image: 3D metal printer in action in the Open Sustainability Lab at Michigan Tech. Photo by Chenlong Zhang

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