Mar 16, 2018 | By Tess

Joshua Pearce, a prolific engineer at Michigan Tech, has been working on developing an affordable metal 3D printing technology. The project involves hacking a CNC router kit and an metal inert gas (MIG) welder to create a low-cost GMAW metal 3D printer.

In a recent paper published by Pearce and his colleagues, the engineer details possible applications for the novel metal 3D printing process. They include fixing a damaged part by 3D printing a metal feature onto it, creating a part with a substrate, 3D printing high-resolution objects, producing near-net components, and manufacturing an “integrated product” with a combination of polymer and steel 3D printing.

The metal 3D printer itself is based on an open-source design reportedly inspired by the Rostock delta RepRap printer, only it integrates a gas metal arc welding (GMAW)-based print head, making metal 3D printing possible. The open-source metal 3D printer can reportedly be made for as little as $1,200.

The innovative printer is built to use weld filler wire as a material, which is more easily accessible than industrial-quality metal powders. And though the printer is not exactly up to the same standard as laser-based metal AM systems, Pearce and his colleagues say that it demonstrates “good adhesion between layers” and is suitable for a number of applications.

Importantly, its low cost can make it accessible to small businesses, makers, and others.

“Most of the metal 3D printers available on the market are for high-end applications, which require expensive equipment and use relatively dangerous fine metal powders,” reads the Michigan Tech study. “Due to the cost and the complicity of the technology, it is inaccessible for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), fablabs, and individual makers who are interested in the ability to prototype and make final products in metal using additive manufacturing technology.”

With SME-related applications in mind, Pearce and his team set to work testing their GMAW metal 3D printer for five different uses (listed above). For the first application of 3D printing a metal feature to fix an existing part, a bracket was 3D printed onto a substrate.

For the second application, the machine was used to 3D print a metal part and a substrate. In its example, the research group 3D printed a cylinder onto a substrate to create a hoe: “The substrate is cut into a shape of a hoe and sharpened on the edge opposite the printed cylinder. A wood or a polymer 3D printed stick can be used as a handle for the hoe. Being able to manufacture such a product in an isolated rural community can be considered appropriate technology and can foster sustainable development.”

To showcase the 3D printer’s ability to create a high-resolution model, the researchers additively manufactured a metal chisel model and a chemistry lab support ring model. These demonstrated a higher resolution than the previous version of the GMAW 3D printer could offer and required minimal machining before use.

The fourth application, producing a near-net-shape part, consisted of producing a customizable horseshoe. This part required machining.

Finally, the research team demonstrated the ability to manufacture an integrated product by combining polymer and metal 3D printing. In this example, an axe head was 3D printed from steel using the open-source printer and its handle was printed from nylon.

As the researchers explain, “A combination process like this can be used to remotely manufacture similar open source instruments such as a hammer or other hand tools that would be useful in the developed and developing world.”

Ultimately, Pearce and his team have shown that their low-cost and open-source metal 3D printing technology is adequate for a range of applications. “Metal products and parts can be designed and created using this technology and the low-cost and open-source advantages make it available to everyone,” they say. “This also gives the user the flexibility to customize the hardware and software for other uses.”

Notably, the researchers believe that their hackable metal 3D printer could be deployed to developing regions of the world and to generally encourage sustainable manufacturing and development.

You can read the full paper, “Applications of Open Source GMAW-Based Metal 3-D Printing,” here.



Posted in 3D Printer



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