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More and more, it’s clear that 3D printers aren’t just for printing plastic. A team at Michigan Technological University announced Monday that it has created a personal (albeit slightly dangerous) metal 3D printer. The design will be released for free to all as an open-source project and can be built from parts costing less than $1,500.
The printer works by laying down layers of steel that are sealed together with a commercially available welder that is integrated into the printer. The design is still in its infancy, but the team expects that making it open source will speed its development.
“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,” team lead Joshua Pearce said in a release. “Within a month, somebody will make one that’s better than ours, I guarantee it.”
Pearce said the printer is best suited to use in a garage or shop because its operator still needs to wear safety equipment. In the picture above, you can note the flying sparks.
There are already 3D printers that can create metal objects, but they tend to cost at least $500,000. Shapeways is willing to make almost any object in a variety of metals for buyers on its professional printers. Recently, a Colorado-based team began marketing a sub-$1,000 metal 3D printer on Kickstarter called the Mini Metal Maker. But it works with metal clays, which are softer and require the extra step of being fired in a kiln.
Pearce acknowledged that while the home metal 3D printer could create a new set of problems for the world, they will do more good than harm.
“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,” Pearce said in the release. “Pretty soon, we’ll be able to make almost anything.”
Pearce named researchers and entrepreneurs in developing countries as people who could benefit especially from metal 3D printers.
“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,” Pearce said in the release.