They're among us. And their numbers are growing. They are the maker culture.

These do-it-yourself 3D printing aficionados are frequently found working busily in their makerspaces. These workspaces dedicated to creation might contain many interesting gadgets and tools, like the Stratasys (SSYS 1.88%) MakerBot, Autodesk's 3D modeling software, or 3D Systems' new Sense.

Makers, more than anyone, realize their space will likely evolve over time. Especially one maker in Colorado: David Hartkop, creator of the just-unveiled Mini Metal Maker.

The Mini Metal Maker. Source: Mini Metal Maker Indiegogo campaign.

Hartkop believes the new invention will fit right into to the maker culture, filling an obvious void that finally gives the craft and maker community a way to print metal objects in smaller spaces.

What's Hartkop's target market price for the new 3D printer? Just $500.

Sure, the Mini Metal Maker is still a work in progress. But it may also be a first step of many in a new direction for do-it-yourself 3D printing.

An exclusive look
Curious about Hartkop's invention (and as a Colorado resident myself), I traveled down to Pueblo, Colo., to meet with Hartkop and get my hands on the new printer.

So, what exactly is the Mini Metal Maker? And what makes it unique? Hartkop explains.

Still in the prototype stages, Hartkop says he is only scratching the surface with his invention, and fully intends to see his creation through to market. On his just-launched Indiegogo campaign Hartkop said the "Mini Metal Maker is a game-changer in the world of do-it-yourself 3-D printing."

David Hartkop (on left) talks in his office to author about how the Mini Metal Maker shortens the process of making objects with metal clay.

The creator
Who is David Hartkop? His resume is as interesting as his creation. With a degree in film from Loyola Marymount University, Hartkop has dabbled in film and special effects, even working on effects in videos that featured xZibit, Eminem, BoneThugs, and Nelly. He has also designed the world's first solar-powered coffee roasting system and went on to co-found Solar Roast Coffee with his brother Mike. Today, beyond his work over at the just-franchised Solar Roast, he also works part-time for the Pueblo City-County Library district.

As it turns out, the Pueblo library is home to one of Stratasys' MakerBots, which prints 3D plastic objects. Hartkop actually used the MakerBot to help him print some of the pieces necessary for the original prototype of the Mini Metal Maker. MakerBot, in fact, can take the credit for much of Hartkop's inspiration to create the Mini Metal Maker.

The sketch shown in the video above shows a potential use of the Mini Metal Maker in electrical applications, with the help of dielectric clay, to create an electrical transformer (using copper, ceramic, and iron) or even an electrical motor (including the conductors, insulators, and bearings).

The details
The Mini Metal Maker uses metal clay as inputs. Once the metal clay is printed, and after "these clay objects air-dry, they are fired in a kiln to produce beautiful solid metal objects of high purity and precision," Hartkop explained on his Indiegogo campaign site.

For those not familiar with metal clay and its capabilities, Hartkop elaborated on its properties:

The metal clay suppliers state in the info about their clay that once it is fired, the appropriate stamp for metal purity is '.999' or 99.9% pure. This mostly applies to use with high value fine metals like gold and silver, but is a good indicator of how pure the metal left behind is, once you fire metal clay objects.

So once the kiln process is complete, the end result of the 3D printer's output is a very durable metal object built to a specified digital file's standard.

As some hobbyists familiar with metal clay might point out, it's also possible to use the lost wax method to make metal objects if you are going to be using a kiln anyway. But, as Hartkop explained to me, the lost wax method is more complex:

  1. Attach sprues (small wax stems)
  2. Cast in plaster-like material, let dry
  3. Wax burn-out in kiln
  4. Cast metal (with torch, crucible, and centrifuge)
  5. Cast removal
  6. Sprue removal (with saw and wire cutters)
  7. Clean up (with a file and dentist tools)
  8. Surface finish
Using the Mini Metal Maker, the process is much shorter:
  1. Print metal clay
  2. Clean up
  3. Fire in kiln
  4. Clean up and surface finish

That said, the kiln process is probably the biggest drawback to the Mini Metal Maker's approach to printing metal at home. Sure, the process of making metal at home is shorter with the Mini Metal Maker. But Mini Metal Maker owners will be required to have a kiln to fire the printed clay.

Another challenge Hartkop listed will be getting the software to account for the shrinkages that occur in metal clay when it is fired. Different forms of clay have different levels of shrinkages. The software will have to adjust the print of the clay to account for the shrinkage that will occur when the clay is fired.

What kind of objects could be printed with the printer?

Is the Mini Metal Maker safe for at home use? Hartkop says it is.

Just how accurate is the Mini Metal Maker? Hartkop believes he can get extrusion precision down to 200 microns -- an ambitious undertaking, considering how close it is to the popular MakerBot resolution capability of 100 microns.

What's next for the Mini Metal Maker?
As seen on his Indiegogo campaign, Hartkop has laid out some ambitious next steps to take when he gets the required fundraising:

  1. Refine the metal clay recipe for each of five different clay types: Copper, Bronze, Steel, Silver & Gold.
  2. Refine our high-pressure extruder design. We currently have a reliable extrusion trace at around 0.5mm but believe this can be reduced to 200 microns.
  3. Add a second print head for use with additional metal clays or support material.
  4. Optimize the integrated motor carriage design so that it can be easily printed on low cost printers such as the Makerbot and RepRap.
  5. Refine custom firmware for the printer to further optimize printing for clay.
  6. Create the Mini Metal Forge software environment in order to foster a good user experience, particularly for the non-technical craftsperson.
  7. Work with industrial partners to tool up for production of the machine with injection molding.

To wrap things up, I asked David to give me a 10,000-foot view of his long-term goals for the Mini Metal Maker. He didn't hold back.

In the Mini Metal Maker, Hartkop has opened the door to a missing link in do-it-yourself 3D printing: metal. I think his device has huge potential.

Will it challenge existing 3D printing products (like the MakerBot) that are already popular in the do-it-yourself crowd? Not at all -- it's simply too different. But there's no reason a polished prototype selling for just $500 couldn't earn a spot right along with existing do-it-yourself 3D printers. As Hartkop explained to me, it's not a matter of one or the other; the Mini Metal Maker is a unique addition to existing do-it-yourself 3D printing technologies.

Going from prototype to finished product won't be easy. Particularly, Hartkop suggests that developing user friendly software and refining the nozzle and printing technology to get extrusion down to 200 microns will be a challenge. On the other hand, he feels confident he will be able to address these issues.

It's tough to say whether Hartkop will succeed in bringing his new 3D printer to market. But that isn't stopping the Indiegogo crowd that has nearly funded his entire project in less than a week after Hartkop's campaign launched. With 41 days left in the campaign, Harktop will likely raise far more funding than he set out to get.

One thing is for sure: The Mini Metal Maker is a step in a new direction for 3D printing.

"Welcome to the metal age of do-it-yourself 3D printing," Hartkop boldly proclaimed during the video posted on his Indiegogo campaign site.