Mar 29, 2017 | By Tess
Just under a year ago we covered a story about how a startup called Ability3D was working on developing a potentially revolutionary desktop metal 3D printer which would only cost about $3,000 (a mere fraction of what industrial metal 3D printers cost). While for many the prospect seemed to good to be true, we are happy to say that the Florida-based startup has delivered in the form of a crowdfunding campaign.
Ability3D has just launched a Kickstarter campaign for its innovative Ability1 metal 3D printer. The 3D printer, which allows for the creation of strong, solid metal parts in your home or office, is available to backers for as low as $2,899 (up to $3,299). Considering that metal 3D printing systems usually cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, it is certainly worth taking a look at how Ability3D has managed to scale the technology down so much, while still maintaining its basic principles of additively manufacturing metal.
As the startup explains, its Ability1 3D printer does not require expensive laser sintering equipment or even metal powders to operate, as it uses a combination of two much simpler processes: MIG welding and CNC milling. In effect, the metal 3D printer is a hybrid welding and milling machine (which are additive and subtractive processes, respectively), as it works by first depositing a layer of metal using the MIG welder, and then trimming any rough edges off using the CNC mill. Once one layer is done, the process repeats over and over until the object is complete.
Once the metal part is complete, users can simply use a chisel and hammer to remove it from the metal build plate. (The build plate is made from a “dissimilar metal platen,” which stops it from fully adhering to the print, making the part removal relatively easy.) Additionally, because MIG welding is such a common technique, users have the opportunity to use a wide range of welding wire types, including aluminum, stainless steel, and steel, as (locally sourced) 3D printing material.
One of the main questions that arises when talking about metal 3D printing in the home or office is, of course, safety. Fortunately, Ability1’s developers have ensured that they have taken the necessary precautions to make their machine safe. Safety features include: an all metal construction, a sealed enclosure (to contain fumes), a negative-pressure blower that carries fumes from the printer to the outside via a hose, an interlock system for the doors and handles, a motorized shutter that reinforces the viewing window while welding, and an electrically isolated welding current. The Ability1 is also expected to receive UL and CE certification if the Kickstarter campaign is successful.
Ability3D team at CES 2017, where it won the Digital Trends 2017 Cool Tech Award
In terms of its 3D printing specifications, the Ability1 boasts a built volume of 8” x 8” x 8” (200 mm x 200 mm x 200 mm), a positioning accuracy of +/- 0.001 inches (+/- 25 microns), a minimum layer thickness of 5 microns, and a max layer thickness of 1000 microns. Its overall footprint is is 18” x 24” x 23” and it weighs about 70 lbs. Its CNC component has a 300 watt spindle with a maximum rpm of 10,000.
Ability3D says that its desktop metal 3D printer will be equipped with a built-in computer, so users will simply have to connect their own monitor, mouse, and keyboard to connect to and control the system. Users will also need to supply their own cylinder of welding gas.
Parts 3D printed on the Ability1
As the technology stands, there are a few limitations, primarily in terms of designs and their complexity. Because the process is so new, the Ability1’s developers have had to hand-write the printer’s G-code, which has led to functional, but very simple designs. As Ability3D explains, the hand-written G-code “has limited the complexity of parts we can print so far, and it has limited the quality of those parts (unfilled regions, voids, misplaced welds, etc).”
If funding from the Kickstarter campaign comes through, Ability3D is confident it can develop a smart, sophisticated software that will allow for users to 3D print more complex and structurally sound parts. The Kickstarter campaign, which is seeking to raise $640,000, has raised nearly $70,000 since its launch one day ago. As mentioned, interested backers can get the Ability1 metal 3D printer for as low as $2,899 (shipping not included). Delivery is estimated for October 2017.