web analytics

What Do You Want To Build with 3D Metal Printer?

V23BBqq2Q6zhJJ5h5vyVZU4rLqEMeJBvO5CxE5EE5thKAQAA6wAAAEpQ_260x196In TV show The Big Bang Theory, Howard secretly stole $5,000 to purchase a used 3D printer and made some meaningful toy figures – at least he thought so. Of courses, he can’t avoid being blamed by Bernadette. Nowadays, as the technology develops, it may not be an unrealizable dream.

Recently, Joshua Pearce, associate professor at Michigan Technological University and his team, successfully developed a low-cost 3D printer, the software, firmware and manual of which are all freely available to users. Until now, commonly seen 3D printers only work with plastic raw materials, while Pearce’s 3D printer can print out a hammer – Yes, they developed a 3D metal printer. Since the parameters of the machine is open-source, everyone can make their own 3D metal printer.

The open-source 3D printer only costs less than $1,500 worth of materials, including an open source microcontroller and a small commercial MIG welder. The printer fabricates articles with complex geometry by laying down thin layers of steel. Commercial metal printers are able to do that, but their prices are usually over half a million dollars.


The low-cost, open-source 3D metal printer in operation. *Image source: Chenlong Zhang.


3D metal printing technology develops fast and is being applied in more and more fields. However, debate on 3D printers has never stopped, and now, a safety concern on homemade firearms adds to the debate. Some people have already made guns with both plastic and metal 3D printers, with mixed results. While Pearce admits that they had some sleepless nights as they developed the 3D metal printer, he also believes that people will gain much more benefits than the dangers from 3D printing technology.

 “Homemade firearm is just a topic to distract attention. Anyone who wants a gun, can make a much better firearm with traditional tools purchased from mechanical shops or auto body shops. Or, one can just buy one.” Pearce doesn’t believe the firearm safety issue will directly prevent open-source 3D metal printing technology from fast developing:” One side of the balance is more than 90,000 free 3D printing designs, while the other side is a low-quality homemade gun. We can’t totally repudiate 3D metal printing. We hope everyone can learn that 3D printing can make a better world.” Pearce says.

Although the new 3D metal printer is much cheaper than any commercial products, Pearce notes that this printer requires more safety gear and fire protection equipment comparing with traditional 3D printers. Therefore, he suggests that now it is better off in the hands of a shop, garage or skilled DIYer.

Particularly speaking, expanded 3D printing technology would benefit people in the developing countries, who have limited access to manufactured goods, and researchers, who can drastically cut the research funding, as well as small and medium-sized enterprises. “We really don’t know if we are mature enough to handle it, but I believe that with the open-source approach, we are within reach of a Star Trek-like, post-scarcity society, in which people can create enormous number of objects on demand, resulting in wealth for everyone at minimal cost. Very soon, we will be able to make almost anything.”