With today’s technology, we have seen some major progress being made within the 3D printing space. Within a couple of years, we have seen 3D printers go from being priced in the $2500+ range, to becoming as affordable as purchasing a video game console. Today, just about anyone can afford to purchase a 3D printer, yet mass adoption has not begun to take place. One of the reasons for this, is because of the limited number of materials that affordable consumer level 3D printers are capable of printing with. We are limited to the basic plastics, for the most part, with a few other materials being able to be printed on a limited number of machines.
One man, by the name of Jean-Michel Rogero (aka Kolergy), of Toulouse, France hopes to change this. He and a team at the Artilect Fablab in Toulouse have come up with a 3D printer that is capable of printing in metal. While the printer is still in its early stages of development, the goal is to keep the cost to build it, under 1,000€.
Rogero, recently sat down for a 2-hour long interview with 3DPrint.com, to discuss his 3D printer, along with some of the issues, obstacles, and experiences he has had with his machine.
While the printer has been built, Rogero and team are still working on perfecting its print ability. The 3D Printer which is called the “StrongPrint” utilizes a type of welding process referred to as TIG (tungsten inert gas), and a 3D printing process formerly known as WAAM (Wire + Arc Additive Manufacturing), according to Rogero.
Similarly to how an FDM based 3D printer works, with this printer, metal wire (like that of plastic filament on traditional 3D printers) is fed through a wire feed system, that Rogero says was very difficult to get working correctly. The wire is brought into a small liquid pool on the object, that is create by an ‘electric arc’. It melts in the heat and becomes part of the object (see image – to right).
The printer itself, and the way that the printing portion of it moves, was inspired by the movement of the extruder on the Metal Delta RepRap v1.
In the state that the printer is currently in, which is considered to be its start of development, it is only capable of printing 3 layers deep. This means that in its current form, it’s not very capable of printing something all that useful.
“The maximum that I was able to [print], without creating a hole was 3 layers,” explained Rogero to 3DPrint.com. “I will try a technique I have seen in a paper from Cranfield University, where you stop to let cool down between the layers. The machine does not yet have the skills of a good welder.”
Rogero plans to fix this though. He hopes that he can form a large community like that of traditional RepRap 3D printers. In doing so, he believes they will be able to better understand the process of how to make this printer print more efficiently, in as many layers as they want. He hopes that once all the bugs are worked out, the printer will be capable of printing with a layer thickness of 2mm and a layer height of 0.5mm. This would be capable of making some extremely detailed 3D printed metal objects, in a variety of metals including steel, stainless steel, and titanium. “Any metal that can be printed with a TIG (welding) process – nearly all common metals would work,” explained Rogero.
However, Rogero tells us, that metals that are high conductors of heat, such as aluminum, copper, gold, silver, etc would not be as easy to print with, like metals such as steel and titanium are.
Another issue that Rogero currently needs to solve, is that of build plate adhesion. The way that this 3D printer works in its current state, all of the objects that are printed, end up becoming welded to the metal plate. However, he has a solution planned for this. “You can not weld steel to copper, so using a copper [build] plate could work,” he explained.
Rogero has constructed a printer that features a build area of 38cm X 38cm X 40cm high. The printer itself is approximately 60cm X 60cm in dimension, and currently runs using Repetier Host and Marlin Firmware which has been adapted for the Delta style RepRap printers. However, custom G-code is required as well, because the printer needs to constantly and rapidly extrude and retract the wire in millimeters at a time, to make sure the extruded wire melts in the correct location. Rogero points out that this will be able to be introduced in the firmware though.
“I guess for at least the next few years it will be for the hardcore makers, but once the process is better understood, especially if there is a large community effort like on the RepRap, this could go rapidly,” he answered.
In order to make the printer safe for use, Rogero believes there will need to be many additional features added, including a possible fume extractor, and a method of enclosing the machine. The main safety concerns in its current form are that of potential fires, fumes, and eye damage, due to the large amount of UV light emanating from the weld spark. He believes that once the print process has been perfected, and safety concerns addressed, it would cost less than $10,000 to assemble a well working model.
Rogero informed us, that while the project currently is for ‘pure fun’, he has received a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from many people, and may think about eventually selling kits or assembled printers, but only when he is able to produce actual parts himself.
Rogero has made all the files needed to build this printer available on Thingiverse. “I put all my designs on Thingiverse to make them open hardware, therefore protecting them from patenting – at least I had hoped,” he explained. “I’m concerned by what is happening with the Makerbot patent controversy, but what concerns me is less the behavior of Makerbot, than the lack of protection offered by the creative commons licence.”
What do you think? Can this project end up succeeding and bringing 3D printers, capable of printing in metal, to the market for under $10,000? Discuss in the StrongPrint discussion thread on 3DPB.com. Check out the video and images below: