Scientists release plans for open-source 3D metal printer

Reprap-inspired additive manufacturing unit prints in steel and costs less the $2,000 to build from off-the-shelf components.

Comments Off on Scientists release plans for open-source 3D metal printer December 11, 2013
Mike McLeod

13-dec-cheap-metal-3d-printer-1-360A team of researchers at Michigan Technological University lead by material engineering professor Joshua Pearce have release the plans for a DIY, open source 3D metal printer. While no where as sophisticated as commercial laser sintering SLM machines that cost upwards of $500,000, the MTU machine costs less than US$2,000 to build from commonly available components.

Based on a delta-bot version of the FDM-based RepRap 3D printer, Pearce’s metal printer is composed of a build platform supported by the three arms of a delta robot underneath. An Arduino micro-controller drives a stepper motor at the base of each arm, which work in concert to position the platform on the x, y and z axes. To print the model, a low-cost commercial gas-metal arc welder, held stationary 6mm above the platform, melts steel wire in thin beads as the platform moves.

The printer connects, via USB, to a Linux-based PC that runs the open-source “slicer” application that dissects an STL file into its various z-axis layers. The open source application also generates the relevant G-code that instructs the delta-bot how to form each progressive layer. The end result, says Pearce, is somewhat rough, given the raw stage of the project’s development, but is an otherwise functional metal part.

“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, an associate professor of materials science and engineering/electrical and computer engineering. “Within a month, somebody will make one that’s better than ours, I guarantee it.”

The build-it-yourself printer is cheap and straightforward to assemble using the BOM and assembly instructions the former Queens university professor and this team published. However, Pearce says the project is more suited to experienced DIYers with adequate shop space due to the fire hazard. Still, as the technology matures, he foresees the metal printers like his eventually ushering in a sci-fi inspired future.

“I really don’t know if we are mature enough to handle it,” he says, “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.”