Need earrings? No job's too small for world's tiniest 3-d printer

A new 3-D printer is the size of a milk carton and can produce smaller objects that require exceptional attention to detail, such as spare parts or jewelry.

Despite all the hype over 3-D printing's potential to revolutionize manufacturing, the one thing that just doesn't sit well with me is that very term: "3-D printer."

Just the name can give this misleading impression that these "printers" can be set up right next to your desktop computer or installed at a local Kinko's, when in reality they're hulking machines that weigh several hundred pounds and are primarily geared toward industrial projects. Even the relatively new desktop versions weigh as much as the average adult.

However, a new portable device developed by scientists at the Vienna University of Technology may change all that.

The 3-D printer, which researchers claim is the world's smallest, has the form factor of a milk carton, weighs about 3.3 pounds and is expected to cost $1,700 dollars, which is remarkably affordable compared to the six-figure price tag of some of the heavy-duty machines.

The device obviously can't be used to print out furniture like the bigger boys; It's designed to produce smaller objects that require exceptional attention to detail, such as spare parts or jewelry.

Three dimensional printers "print" out objects using “additive manufacturing technology,” a process in which the source material is layed out one layer at a time based on design specifications. In this case, the object is printed in a small tub using a special form of synthetic resin as the source material. Focused beams of light causes the resin to harden at specific spots. When one layer hardens, the next layer can be attached to it, until the object is completed

One advantage of additive manufacturing is the fact that it offers users the ability to produce tailor-made and adjustable items. The individual layers hardened by the light beams are just a twentieth of a millimeter thick, making it suitable for objects that require a high degree of precision – such as construction parts for hearing aids. And unlike previous models, the printer at TU Vienna uses light emitting diodes or high intensity light that can be focused at very well-defined positions.

Additionally, the researchers are experimenting with a variety of different 3D-techniques and materials. These include special ceramics or polymers and eco-friendly biodegradable substances. They're also working on ways to shrink the printer down even more, which would make even inkjet printers look like big, clunky Goliaths.

“We will continue to reduce the size of the printer, and the price will definitely decrease too, if it is produced in large quantities”, says researcher Klaus Stadlmann.

Image: Vienna University of Technology

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