The Mini Metal Maker: 3D metal printer for the maker community
My DIY claim to fame, if you can call it that, is a neat little printer called the Mini Metal Maker. It sets itself apart from all other consumer-level printers because of it’s one essential feature: It prints with metal. Ability to print with metal is sometimes referred to as the ‘holy grail’ in the world of 3d printing, and us generally only done with really expensive ($250K+) machines that use lasers or electron beams to weld together metal powder. Instead of going for the high-tech, high-cost option, I opted to import a little-known material from the jewelry industry into the world of 3D printing - namely metal clay.
Metal clay is real metal, and no, I didn’t invent it. It’s actually been around since the 1990s. It was first introduced in Japan by metallurgist Masaki Morikawa, who created precious metal clays with sterling silver. Metal clay is essentially an amalgam of metal powder in a water soluble binder. Using it works like this: first sculpt your art by hand, let it dry, then fire it in a pottery kiln. The kiln’s high temperature burns out the binder and seamlessly fuses the metal particles together into a solid metal version of your original shape.
Many other varieties of metal clays have come onto the market since then. There are now metal clays of copper, bronze, nickel, iron, gold, platinum, as well as the original sterling silver. The products made with metal clay can be bent, polished, drilled, soldered and machined like any other finished metal. In the jewelry industry, this material has become a viable alternative to fabrication and the lost wax process. That said, metal clay is still largely unknown outside the narrow niche of metalsmithing.
The Mini Metal Maker is designed to bring this remarkable material into the world of 3D printing. I first conceived it as an entirely open-source DIY printer, and set about developing a prototype that would extrude clay rather than plastic. My printers all use a powerful motor-driven piston, which forces clay from a pre-loaded syringe through a small diameter nozzle. Using a motor to push clay allows for very fine control of extrusion speed, as well as the ability to start and stop flow at a moment’s notice. This last feature enables complex objects to be made. Most other clay printers are limited to coil pots or hollow forms because they rely on bulk air pressure to move the clay.
My first crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo in 2014 was a big success. It let me create a set of well-designed plans for a DIY printer. In addition, I was able to design more professional version of the printer. I ran a second semi-successful campaign in 2015, which let me refine the pro-version into a mass-producible machine. I was also able to go through the expensive testing and licensing process with the FCC that required to be able to sell an electronic product. To date I have hand built and shipped around fifty of the Mini Metal Maker pro printers, and have sold over one hundred downloads of the DIY plans.
I have come to find the most acceptance within the do-it-yourself and 3D printer enthusiast community. These are the people who like to build technology, who like to experiment with electronics and code, and who (most importantly) already work with 3D printers. They tend to have a good attitude about hacking and experimenting in order to get the results they like. I have fought to make my printers as precise easy to use as possible, but in the end have found that it still takes a certain kind of person to use it.
Over all, making the Mini Metal Maker has been a grand experiment, a lesson in persistence, and a challenge in small business. It has been a real eye-opener and has reinforced for me that most basic tenet of business: know your customer, and make things that they will want. The pro-version of the Mini Metal Maker? Perhaps a bit expensive for my ideal customer. The DIY plans to create your own? Perhaps just right or the maker community. :-)
It has been quite a journey, and I am happy to say I have found a home within the maker community. Thank you to everyone who has offered their advice, energy, and adventurous spirit through the development of this awesome little printer. You can check out some example metal prints and see more about the Mini Metal Maker on my website at www.minimetalmaker.com.