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.

View gallery - 2 images