Low-Cost, Open-Source 3-D Metal Printer Could Bring Revolutionary Technology To Millions
Up until now, 3-D printing has been used by the general public primarily for printing plastic. That could change after Joshua Pearce of the Michigan Technology University and his team announced the development of a metal 3-D printer that is also extremely cheap. The best part? It's open source: the detailed plans, software, and firmware are all freely available for anyone to make their own 3-D printer.
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The product is simple because the technology is raw, and can be built from parts costing as little as $1500. Pearce admits that the new printer is a work still in progress, but he expects 3rd party users to help refine the product. "Similar to the incredible churn in innovation witnessed with open-sourcing of the first RepRap plastic 3-D 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. Pearce is confident that somebody will make better 3-D printers than he has made within a month.
Pearce and his team built their 3-D metal printer from just a small commercial MIG welder and an open source microcontroller together worth under $1500. This printer can form complex geometric objects with thin layers of steel. The commercial metal printers currently available cost over half a million dollars. The make it yourself printer is much less expensive and quite affordable in comparison to off-the-shelf commercial plastic 3-D printers. At the same time, the researchers suggest that it's not as simple as, say, putting together an Ikea desk. In fact, it's probably even more complex than a typical plastic 3-D printer, requiring more fire protection equipment and safety gear, according to Pearce. Pearce recommends that, for now, construction should be left to a shop, garage or skilled DIYer.
Despite new vistas opening up with metal 3-D printing, there are areas of concern. The use of 3-D printing to produce untraceable weaponry has widely been reported; according forbes.com, a $25 gun can be made with a cheap 3-D printer. Pearce himself admits to sleepless nights as he and his team developed the metal printer.
Nevertheless, he believes that benefits far outweigh the dangers with 3-D printing. Comparing open-source approach to "a Star Trek-like, post-scarcity society," Pearce said, "'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."
Pearce and his group in their previous work had demonstrated that printing goods at home could be greener in comparison to buying commercial goods, in addition to being cheaper. While this is beneficial to an average American, it would be far more beneficial to people in the third world who have limited access to manufactured goods. Researchers would also benefit with radically reduced costs of scientific equipments, according to Pearce. "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," he said.
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