The possibility of a cheap, compact 3D printer for the home is looming on the horizon thanks to researchers at the Vienna University of Technology, who have produced a prototype desktop machine no bigger than a carton of milk.
3D printers, more properly referred to as rapid prototyping machines, allow users to create solid objects from digital files - making the process of manufacturing a prototype part for a project significantly quicker than has previously been possible. They're popular in engineering and product design circles - but are typically bulky and expensive.
Despite that, many in the industry believe that 3D printers will, inevitably, find their way into the home - just as 2D printers did before them. Derek Elley, founder of distributed manufacturing platform Ponoko, even envisions a day when the concept of shipping a physical product to an end user is obsolete - replaced with sending a digital design which can be printed out on a 3D printer directly in the buyer's home.
"That's exactly what the software is built for," he enthused during an interview with thinq_: "Bringing distributed manfacturing, ultimately, into the home."
There are several barriers to be considered along the way, however - not least of which is the cost and size associated with 3D printers. Most 3D printing technology relies on a large, mechanical unit that takes up a considerable amount of space - and which can cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy. The team in Vienna, however, is working on addressing those precise problems.
Working together, teams from the university's mechanical engineering department - led by Professor Jürgen Stampfl - and chemistry department - led by Professor Robert Liska - were able to design a 3D printer which is significantly smaller and cheaper than anything else on the market - and which could, potentially, lead to the home-friendly printers that Elley predicts are just around the corner.
Markus Hatzenbichler and Klaus Stadlmann have successfully used the research carried out at the university to create a prototype 3D printer which weighs just 1.5KG, is the size of a carton of milk, and costs a tiny €1,200 - a price which will drop given time. "We will continue to reduce the size of the printer," Stadlmann explained "and the price will definitely decrease too, if it is produced in large quantities."
The team's 3D printer works via a special resin developed by the chemistry department which hardens when illuminated via intense beams of light, generated from an LED projector integral to the printer. Each layer of the material is illuminated in the spots required to produce the finished article, before a new layer of resin is added - a process known a 'additive manufacturing.'
"This way, we can even produce complicated geometrical objects with an intricate inner structure," Stadlmann explained - something which could is impossible using traditional casting techniques. The use of an LED projector as a light source also allows unprecedented detail in the finished model, thanks to high-resolution light beams just a 20th of a millimetre thick.
The team's creation will never replace the techniques and tools used for large-scale production of bulk articles, but that's not where the 3D printing revolution is heading: instead, it will allow users to print out personalised, custom products directly in their home or office - something which is simply uneconomical given the current mass-manufacturing infrastructure employed by most companies.
The team at the Vienna University of Technology isn't the only one looking into how 3D printing and hyper-local manufacturing technologies can be brought to the masses, of course - but it certainly seems to be the closest to turning that dream into a reality.
Thus far, the university has not announced any plans to produce a commercial version of the prototype printer.