The Future of 3D Printed Metal

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3D printing and maker culture certainly have some amazing implications for a more collaborative economy. But printing with certain materials is much more cost-effective than printing with others. Machines that print with plastics are already available for hobbyists, but those that print with metal are much more expensive.

Until now at least.

Engineers from Michigan Technological University in Houghton have rigged up their version of a 3D metal printer that can be made with less than $1,500 of materials and some open-source software.

Their metal printer creates objects from layers of steel wire, heated and extruded through a nozzle.

“We can [make] any 3D object that could fit in a breadbox,” Pearce says – with the caveat that the object cannot have any vertical holes running through it, because of how the welding machine works.

This isn’t the first venture to meld metal and 3D printing. Another 3D printer, the Mini Metal Maker, can be used to make small custom metal pieces, like jewelry, and will set you back just $750 (unassembled) or $1,000 (assembled). Instead of wire, this model prints with a blend of metal and clay. The piece is fired in a kiln afterwards, removing binders and water, and leaving behind the metal. Mini Metal Maker has raised more than $21,000 so far on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, and expects to start shipping printer kits to backers in September 2014.

If inexpensive fabrication of metal components became possible, the opportunities would be amazing. Imagine never having to wait for a shipment of parts to get the component you needed to fix your car, or your dishwasher, or a key piece of farming equipment at harvest time.