The technology behind 3D printing is still at an early stage, but progressing rapidly. One area where researchers and engineers are focusing their attention now is affordable metal 3D printing. Currently if you wish to fabricate an object out of metal you need to have access to a machine costing close to, if not more than, $1 million. Just like with plastic 3D printing, however, such machines are certain to drop in price as their capabilities expand. There is more than just money keeping these printers out of people’s homes and garages, however. Safety is also a major concern, as high temperatures, powerful lasers, and potential fumes all present dangers to users and their environments.
With that said, a group of students at Delft University of Technology are in the process of creating what they hope to be an open source metal 3D printer, available to a wide audience, and capable of printing with decent resolutions. The printer — which basically takes an MIG (metal/inert-gas) welder and attaches it to a Prusa i3 — is already capable of printing decent sized test objects.
For those of you unfamiliar with welding, an MIG welder uses a continuous feed of wire which is melted as it acts as both a filler metal and an electrode. A shielding gas flows around the melted wire, protecting it from any sort of local contamination.
The project, which has been inspired by research and development conducted at Michigan Technological University, already seems to be off to quite a start. Basically the MIG welder is tethered to the machine where the extruder and hotend usually are located. Using the Prusa i3’s Cartesian method of printing, the welder slowly but surely melts the metal wire as it places the material down layer by layer. The wire is fed to the welder at a rate of 4 meters/minute. The travel rate of the torch according to the team’s initial settings was 300mm/minute. A typical thermoplastic-based FDM/FFF printer, in contrast, can print anywhere from 3,000 to 18,000 mm/minutes, so this is considerably slower.
Using this method, the team has been able to 3D print a wall-like structure, which is surprisingly solid, as well as uniform, which you can see from the images and video they have provided. Other circular shapes were also made.
There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done on this project; however, this certainly could act as a springboard toward affordable metal 3D printing. Let’s hear your thoughts on this project in the MIG Welder/3D Printer forum thread on 3DPB.com. Check out the video of the machine in action below. For further details and to follow along as the team progresses further on this project, check out their blog.