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Michigan Tech Scientists Build Low-Cost, Open-Source 3D Metal Printer

Michigan Technological University News writer Marcia Goodrich notes that maybe you aren’t interested in making your own toys, cellphone cases, or glow-in-the-dark Christmas decorations, but how about a brake drum?

Until now, 3D printing has been a polymer affair, with most people in the maker community using the machines to make all manner of plastic consumer goods, from tent stakes to chess sets, but a new low-cost 3D printer developed at Michigan Tech’s Open Sustainability Technology Lab by Joshua Pearce and his team could add hammers to that list. The detailed plans, software and firmware are all freely available and open-source, meaning anyone can use them to make their own metal 3D printer:
http://www.appropedia.org/Open-source_metal_3-D_printer

The paper notes that technical progress in the open-source self replicating rapid prototyper (RepRap) community has enabled a distributed form of additive manufacturing to expand rapidly using polymer-based materials. However, the lack of an open-source metal alternative and the high capital costs and slow throughput of proprietary commercialized metal 3-D printers has severely restricted their deployment. The applications of commercialized metal 3-D printers are limited to only rapid prototyping and expensive finished products. This severely restricts the access of the technology for small and medium enterprises, the developing world and for use in laboratories. This paper reports on the development of a <$2000 open-source metal 3-D printer. The metal 3-D printer is controlled with an open-source micro-controller and is a combination of a low-cost commercial gas-metal arc welder and a derivative of the Rostock, a deltabot RepRap. The bill of materials, electrical and mechanical design schematics, and basic construction and operating procedures are provided. A preliminary technical analysis of the properties of the 3-D printer and the resultant steel products are performed. The results of printing customized functional metal parts are discussed and conclusions are drawn about the potential for the technology and the future work necessary for the mass distribution of this technology.

Ms. Goodrich reports that Dr. Pearce is first to admit his new printer is a work in progress. So far, the products he and his team have produced are no more intricate than a sprocket. But thats because the technology is so raw. 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 thats better than ours, I guarantee it.

Using under $1,500 worth of materials, including a small commercial MIG welder and an open-source microcontroller, Dr. Pearce's team built a 3D metal printer than can lay down thin layers of steel to form complex geometric objects. Commercial metal printers are available, but they cost over half a million dollars.

His make-it-yourself metal printer is less expensive than off-the-shelf commercial plastic 3D printers and is affordable enough for home use, he said. However, because of safety concerns, Dr. Pearce suggests that for now it would be better off in the hands of a shop, garage or skilled DIYer, since 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 the specter of homemade firearms. Some people have already made guns with both commercial metal and plastic 3D printers, with mixed results. While Dr. Pearce admits to some sleepless nights as they developed the metal printer, he also 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.

In particular, expanded 3D printing would benefit people in the developing world, who have limited access to manufactured goods, and researchers, who can radically cut the cost of scientific equipment to further their science, Dr. Pearce says. 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.

"I really don't know if we are mature enough to handle it," he cautions, "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, well be able to make almost anything."

The work is described in “A Low-Cost, Open-Source Metal 3-D Printer,” to be published in IEEE Access (DOI: 10.1109/ACCESS.2013.2293018). The co-authors in the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Lab are Gerald C. Anzalone, a lab supervisor and research scientist in Michigan Tech’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Chenlong Zhang and Bas Wijnen, PhD candidates in materials science and engineering at Michigan Tech; Paul Sanders, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering; and Dr. Pearce.

Michigan Technological University (http:// www.mtu.edu) is a leading public research university developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 130 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering; forest resources; computing; technology; business; economics; natural, physical and environmental sciences; arts; humanities; and social sciences.

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