Testing Your Metal

3D printer Michigan Tech's Open Sust

One of the fondest dreams of modern-day backyard tinkerers is on the verge of coming true. Engineers at Michigan Technological University (MTU) have announced publication of their open-source plans for an affordable, homemade 3-D printer designed to fabricate solid-steel products from common welding wire. The prototype, about a foot tall and weighing a little less than 10 pounds, was assembled from less than $1,500 worth of parts and materials - and the engineers who made it are now working on a more advanced version of the machine to extract all manner of useful new hardware from recycled cans.

To call that a breakthrough would be an understatement. Until now, tech enthusiasts with 3-D printers and limited budgets had to be satisfied with just the gadgets and components they could fabricate from plastic. To work in metal, they would have needed commercial 3-D machines costing $500,000 or more. Now do-it-yourselfers with ordinary tools and skills can download the MTU team's parts list and blueprints at no charge and build their own while they look forward to the next-generation machine. They shouldn't have to wait too long. Because the design is open-source - freely available for any other inventor to modify and adapt - it's almost certain to evolve fast.

Try not to stand in the way. In just a few years of commercial existence, 3-D printing has already become a $2.2 billion-a-year industry. Revenues are expected to reach $10.8 billion by 2021, according to Goldman Sachs, and the personal-use sector is soaring as well: Credit Suisse recently projected year-over-year growth of more than 100 percent in 3-D printing for personal use among small business owners and serious hobbyists.

But the Michigan Tech team isn't looking to please only the pocket-protector crowd. On the contrary, the designers' big ambition is to bring radical improvements to the lives of ordinary people living in remote communities. If all goes well, the MTU printer will enable those folks to manufacture their own tools and fix broken machinery. "Today, many people, particularly in rural areas, simply do not have access to replacement parts for their tractors and bicycles," the project's lead engineer, Joshua Pearce, told Newsweek. "Being able to print low-cost custom products and replacement parts will be a tremendous economic advantage."

Not that Pearce can ignore the machine's potential for harm. He speaks of sleepless nights spent thinking about the likelihood his team's printer will be used to create untraceable firearms. Just last month, in fact, the 3-D manufacturer Solid Concepts announced that it had used its printer to manufacture the parts for "the world's second 3-D printed metal gun."

"Yes, someone will use our technology to make guns or other easily abused technologies," Pearce acknowledges. Even so, he says, "the potential benefits of this technology far outweigh the drawbacks."

Those benefits could be huge. Someday, Pearce hopes, the MTU team's work will save lives in the developing world. He pictures a hospital in Sudan constructing its medical equipment, following free downloadable instructions to print parts on an inexpensive 3-D machine. The hospital's printer may bear only a distant ancestral resemblance to the MTU design, but that doesn't seem to bother Pearce. "Within a month somebody will make one that's better than ours," he was quoted saying in a press release to announce the machine's debut. "I guarantee it." In fact, he seems delighted by the prospect.