It's a sort of a Holy Grail in the 3D printing community; a machine light, small and safe enough for consumers that can create metal objects on the desktop, and one project is now seeking funds for their process to do just that.
Metal clay is a crafting medium which consists of tiny particles of metal such as silver, gold, bronze, or copper which are mixed with an organic binder and water. Generally used to create jewelry, beads and small sculptures, the process originated in Japan in 1990.
Metal clay can be shaped just like any soft clay. After the finished object is dried, the clay can be fired in a kiln or even using a handheld gas torch or gas stove. When heated in a kiln at between 600˚C and 900˚C, the heat burns away the binding material and leaves a pure, sintered metal.
David Hartkop and Ben Aiken's Mini Metal Maker uses metal clay to replace the entire wax-casting or lost-wax process ordinarily needed to make such small metal objects. The Mini Metal Maker prints 3D objects from digital files – directly in precious metal clay rather than in plastic – and once the item is fired in a kiln the finished product is a solid metal object of high purity and precision.
"The Mini Metal Maker will add new capability for the DIY inventor or artist by making fabrication in metal easy and direct," Hartkop says. "It'll be a boon for anyone interested in creating their own gears, miniature mechanisms or printing detailed jewelry or metal ornaments. It's built around the concept of using the minimum number of parts, reducing the cost to produce."
Hartkop plans to use any funds he raises through his Indiegogo campaign to prepare his working prototype as a mass-produced product. He says they've already demonstrated the concept and created a prototype Mini Metal Maker in his shop, and it runs on the open-source software used by the RepRap community driven by off-the-shelf, high-precision stepper motors.
The Mini Metal Maker works with five different clay types: copper, bronze, steel, silver and gold. The high-pressure extruder design boasts a reliable extrusion trace at around 0.5mm but Hartkop believes this can be reduced to 200 microns. The print bed currently allows for prints up to 2.3 inches x 2.3 inches x 2.3 inches, and the movement resolution is up to 1600 steps/mm.
You can get the Mini Metal Maker in kit form for $250, or a fully-assembled version for a commitment of $1500.