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Prototype miniature 3D printer could become an affordable product


May 19, 2011

TU Vienna researchers Markus Hatzenbichler and Klaus Stadlmann with the miniature 3D printer (Photo: TU Vienna)

TU Vienna researchers Markus Hatzenbichler and Klaus Stadlmann with the miniature 3D printer (Photo: TU Vienna)

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With the recent release of the Trimensional app, people can now use their iPhones as inexpensive 3D scanners. Not only can users take three-dimensional images of objects, but they can use those images to create actual physical models ... as long as they have access to a 3D printer. Currently, such printers tend to be large, expensive devices that are usually only found in places like universities or industrial design companies. That could soon change, however, as researchers at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Vienna) have created a prototype compact, affordable 3D printer.

The device itself was assembled by a team of mechanical engineers led by TU Vienna's Prof. Jürgen Stampfl, while the resin it uses for creating objects was formulated by a team of chemists led by Prof. Robert Liska.

The printer uses a system called "additive manufacturing technology," in which objects are formed one layer at a time. In the case of this specific device, it starts with some of the resin in a small tub. When precise areas of that resin are heated using high-intensity beams of LED light, they harden. Objects are formed by successively adding together layers of this hardened resin, each one less than one twentieth of a millimeter thick. The process results in "high resolution" finished products that can be fairly detailed, and can have complex interior structures.

So far, the researchers have got the prototype down to the size of a milk carton and a weight of 1.5 kilograms (3.31 lbs.), although they expect to be able to make it smaller and lighter. It cost EUR 1,200 (about US$1,700) to build - as opposed to the US$15,000 or up that most 3D printers cost - but they likewise expect that amount to drop. They are also looking into using other types of material, such as ceramics, instead of just the resin.

Although it reportedly wouldn't be cost-effective for large-scale production of objects, the printer could be perfect for users who want to create individual spare parts for other gadgets instead of having them shipped, physicians who wish to build custom medical devices, or home hobbyists.

There's no word as to when it might eventually become available to consumers, although if you're the handy type, you can already put together your own MakerBot 3D printer from a $1,225 kit.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

I am curious if anyone knows how this will compare to the CupCake CNC or the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic from MakerBot Industries?

Gizmo Guy

The CupCake CNC and MakerBot Thing-O-Matic are also great 3d printers but we need to welcome this introduction. It prints differently and at a new lower price than the pricey commercial 3d printers. Both are additive but this device has the advantage of being able to print overhanging features since \"unprinted\" space also gets filler.

I\'m particularly excited about ideas getting shared between the different platforms. Together they should be able to build something that starts out quirky (as it is now), then practical, then indispensable and ubiquitous. :-)

Way to go TU Vienna!!

Rustin Haase

Reckon \'Thing-O-Matic\' must be one of the best product names ever.

Stuart Saunders

It\'s going to have to get well below $1,000 USD to be truly affordable. The big problem with the Cupcake, RepRap, Fab@Home and others is their resolution is far inferior to the commercial systems.

The original 3D printing system used a UV hardenable resin in a tub, selectively hardened by a laser. It\'s a messy system, the uncured resin has to be cleaned off the items.

Other systems: Selective laser sintering (SLS), where thin layers of powder are spread out and selectively melted by a laser. Google for DIY SLS to see what may blow away the DIY FDM systems for surface finish quality.

Fusion Deposition Manufacturing (FDM), where a thermoplastic material is extruded through a nozzle. RepRap etc use this method. Multiple materials require as many nozzles as materials used. FDM usually gives a stairstep or terraced surface texture on any but a perfectly flat or vertical surface.

A variation on FDM uses modified inkjet printer technology, capable of producing very high detail with several materials at once.

Yest another deposition process uses a starch based material. The items are quite weak until infused with a resin.

Another buildup process uses sheets of paper laminated together, with each layer being knife or laser cut after being glued to the top of the item.

Gregg Eshelman
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