While it won't throw a scare into the marketing departments at the manufacturers of high-performance 3D metal printers, the latest innovation from the wilds of northern Michigan and Joshua Pearce will likely spark a revolution in small shop fabrication.
Pearce, a materials engineer at Michigan Technological University, and his team of scientists, have built an open-source 3D metal printer for under $1,200 and they've shared the design and software via the open source ethos with the maker community.
Dr. Pearce received a Ph.D. in Materials Engineering from Pennsylvania State University and then went on to develop the first Sustainability Program in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education as an assistant professor of Physics at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. While at that institution, Pearce also started their nanotechnology program. After a stint in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at the School of Environmental Studies at Queen's University, Canada, he also opened up a relationship as a professor in the Materials Science & Engineering and the Electrical & Computer Engineering Departments at the Michigan Tech. He now runs the MTU laboratory in open sustainability technology and works on technology to find solutions to problems in sustainability and poverty reduction.
Based on technology pioneered by the RepRap community, Pearce's design uses a standard metal inert gas – or MIG – welder to build objects of complex geometry.
Call it 'Fry By Wire,' if you will.
The MIG welding process happens when an electric arc is completed between a consumable wire electrode, a 'shielding gas' and the metal workpiece. The arc heats the workpiece metal to the melting point to form a join between two pieces. Most of the less expensive MIG welding systems on the market use a related process, flux cored arc welding, which operates without a shielding gas and instead uses a hollow electrode wire filled with flux.
Pearce says he sees the device being used to make metal replacement parts and even print scientific tools in smaller settings and for smaller production runs.
"I hope to see a large number of small companies starting up to make specialty parts," Pearce said.
The real genius of the idea is that the printer takes only a day to build, is inexpensive and created from readily available parts. According to Pearce, this new application of the technology is well suited for use by small shops or maker spaces.
While at the high end of the technology, metal printers of much higher precision rule the roost, the one designed by Pearce and his team brings the technology to a much larger market.
Pearce says he believes the print resolution and speed of his initial concept will improve as the maker community get their hands on the plans and devise improvements.
"Within a month, somebody will make one that's better than ours," Pearce said. "I guarantee it."