In the 3-D-printed future, we will buy less and make more. Everything from food to human organs, we’re told, can be manufactured this way. But the 3-D printers available now only print with plastic resins—which isn’t going to cut it in a new industrial revolution. For that, we’ll need to print in metal.
Three-D printing with metal isn’t impossible, but it has been prohibitively expensive until this month. A team of scientists from Michigan Technical University led by Joshua Pearce have developed a 3-D metal printer that works just like its popular plastic-forming brethren—by laying down thin layers of steel to form any geometric shape the user has a digital plan for. What’s more, their designs, software, and firmware are all completely open source and available to anyone with access to materials that will set you back less than $1,500.
The decision to make their printer completely open source and available to the DIY community was a conscious one, says Pearce in a recent iTech Post story:
Pearce is the first to admit that 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 that's 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 that's better than ours, I guarantee it."
Pearce is also aware that the printer, and the decision to make it open to the general public, doesn’t come without risk. In its current configuration, the printer requires more safety precautions than a regular, plastic-making 3-D printer, and is only recommended for construction by those who have a shop or garage where it could be operated safely.
There’s also the worry of what the technology could be used for. Should the ability to effectively 3-D print using metal become widely available, guns and other weaponry are going to become a very prominent and widespread concern—although it may be a moot one, considering that we don’t need metals to 3-D print a gun.