Open Source Advocate Dr. Joshua Pearce Publishes Paper on Inexpensive GMAW Metal 3D Printing

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One of the most outspoken advocates of open source philosophy in the 3D printing industry is Dr. Joshua M. Pearce, Associate Professor, Materials Science & Engineering and Electrical & Computer Engineering for Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech).

Dr. Pearce has completed a lot of work and research about 3D printing, sustainable solar power, and open source; he’s even had his classes build their own RepRap 3D printers.

Recently, Michigan Tech researchers Yuenyong Nilsiam, Paul G. Sanders, and Dr. Pearce published a new paper, titled “Applications of Open Source GMAW-Based Metal 3-D Printing,” in the Journal of Manufacturing and Materials Processing; going hand-in-hand with his commitment to open source, all of Dr. Pearce’s papers are free and open access.

The paper discusses how high-end applications dominate the metal 3D printing market, which makes it difficult for fab labs, small and medium enterprises, and individual makers interested in prototyping and 3D printing final products in metal to get on board.

“As you know we have been hacking on cheap metal 3D printers using a MIG welding head,” Dr. Pearce told “Building one of our printers was above the skill level of many people – however, now it is easy for anyone to make an inexpensive 3D metal printer by combining a CNC router kit with a MIG welder  — and then loading it up with open source software. Our latest paper talks about some of the uses of this technology: fixing an existing part by adding a 3-D metal feature, creating a product using the substrate as part of the component, 3-D printing in high resolution of useful objects, near net objects, and making an integrated product using a combination of steel and polymer 3-D printing.”

(A) 3D model of handle hold; (B) metal 3D printed part on substrate; and (C) finished hoe, cut and mounted to wooden handle.

Over the last few years, researchers at the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) Lab have been working on research about gas metal arc welding (GMAW) 3D printing. Progress on the work has led to open source metal 3D printers with GMAW-based print heads that are in the price range of desktop polymer 3D printers – much less expensive than normal metal 3D printing systems.

Magnetic ball joint metal RepRap 3D printer.

“Many people and groups throughout the world have been making their own low-cost metal 3D printers from scratch using our open source plans (or the updated allmetal version). However, the project never took off as fast as we hoped because makers comfortable with both welding and RepRap hardware hacking are not extremely common,” Dr. Pearce told us. “However, now we have a solution that I think will be much accessible for everyone. You can simply buy an existing CNC router kit from CNC Router Parts or similar, build it easily, and directly couple it to low-end MIG welder to make a reasonable metal 3D printer. We have provided open source Franklin software for the controls and a new version of the popular open source Cura – MOST Metal Cura for the slicing -so your software costs are zero or you can use existing commercial CNC router software.”

Additional research shows that metal 3D printed parts made with these GMAW 3D printers have good material properties and adhesion between layers, but according to the paper’s abstract, “they did not proceed far enough to demonstrate applications.”

The abstract continues, “In this study, the utility of the GMAW approach to 3-D printing is investigated using a low-cost open-source metal 3-D printer and a converted Computer Numerical Control router machine to make useful parts over a range of applications including: fixing an existing part by adding a 3-D metal feature, creating a product using the substrate as part of the component, 3-D printing in high resolution of useful objects, near net objects, and making an integrated product using a combination of steel and polymer 3-D printing. The results show that GMAW-based 3-D printing is capable of distributed manufacturing of useful products for a wide variety of applications for sustainable development.”

(A) 3D model; (B) metal 3D printed part on substrate; (C) finished axe head; and (D) integrated product using metal and polymer 3D printing for the handle.

The paper shows that inexpensive GMAW-based metal 3D printing can be used to solve many real-life issues in sustainable development, such as creating a new product, repairing or adding functionality to an existing steel product, and manufacturing near-net shape objects, like a horseshoe. According to the paper, near-net shape manufacturing is “the fastest growing market for hot isostatic pressing for a wide range of applications.”

Dr. Pearce told, “We previously have shown how to take 3D printed parts off of the substrate using a range of tricks – and that the material qualities are surprisingly good (e.g. low porosity and high strength) with a range of aluminium alloys and steels that are readily available as welding wire). In this new paper we have shown you can really do useful things with it – fix broken equipment, make new products, and take 3D printing way outside of the ‘toy’ genre. We made a functional axe with a steel head and a nylon handle. I tested it myself in the backyard and it is the real deal.”

The many applications of low-cost, open source GMAW metal 3D printing are important in terms of sustainable development, and can be used by individual makers and SMEs alike for the distributed manufacturing of useful metal products and parts.

“I can’t wait to see what others start making when they start 3D printing in metal,” Dr. Pearce told us. “Thousands of free open source designs suddenly gain new functionality and value – as for example brackets designed for bookshelves can now be used to substantially more weight in other applications or cosplay props can be turned into real tools (e.g. garden tools that sort of work in plastic – now can become long lived tools for farmers).”

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts below. 


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