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Researchers Develop Low Cost Open Source 3D Printer For Metal Objects

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

A low-cost 3D printer has been developed in the US that will allow users to ‘print’ objects made of steel

American researchers claim to have invented a low cost open source 3D printer that will produce objects made out of steel, a significant development in the emerging field as until now, cheap printers have traditionally made objects out of plastic and polymers. 3D metal printers are of course available commercially, but are mostly used in industrial settings and the cost of the machines is very high, often in the region of hundreds of thousands of pounds. However the 3D printer created by a team led by Professor Joshua Pearce, the head of the Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) group at Michigan Technological University in the United States, costs less than $1,500 (£914). The plans, firmware, and software for the printer have been published online.

Metal 3D Printer

Open source 3D metal printerPearce is an associate professor of materials science and engineering, and admits that the low 3D metal printer is still a working in progress. He says that so far his team has been able to create or ‘print’ nothing more complex than a sprocket, but in the future, the 3D metal printer will be able to produce genuinely useful objects for the home or business, for example a spare part for a car or washing machine. “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,” he claims. “Within a month, somebody will make one that’s better than ours, I guarantee it.” Pearce and his team created the 3D metal printer using relatively low cost materials,such as  a small commercial MIG welder and an open-source microcontroller, meaning it can “lay down thin layers of steel to form complex geometric objects.”

Gun Concerns

This development is bound to cause even more concern for authorities however. Back in May, the US Department of State demanded that non-profit Defense Distributed (DD) remove the blueprints for its fully-functional 3D-printed handgun, the Liberator.

DD eventually complied with the demand, but not before the blueprints had been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

That Liberator gun was the world’s first fully 3D-printed gun, and consists of just fifteen plastic parts, with a common metal nail used as a firing pin. The prospect of a 3D metal printer potentially means that everyday users could create a metal version of the gun.

Pearce himself seems to be conscious of some of the safety concerns regarding his project, and has suggested that 3D metal printers would be better off in the hands of a shop, garage or skilled DIYer, as it requires more safety gear and fire protection equipment than the typical plastic 3D printer. Pearce also admits that the prospect of people printing working firearms with his creation has caused him ‘sleepless nights’. But he also believes that the good to come from all types of distributed manufacturing with 3D printing will far outweigh the dangers.

“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 says/

“I really don’t know if we are mature enough to handle it,” he adds. “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.” What do you know about IT and the law? Take our quiz!