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RepRap: Self-Replicating Rapid Prototyping

A self-replicating, rapid prototyping machine under development at the University of Bath in England could transform the nature of manufacturing. People could produce everyday household objects in their own homes and put them together.


(RepRap Rapid Prototype printed circuitry onto autonomous robot)

Printing in three dimensions - sometimes called "rapid prototyping" - is coming down in price. Small machines cost at least $25,000 and the materials used (usually a kind of plastic) cannot be used to manufacture everything you need. The machines are most often used to create draft copies - prototypes - of objects that will later be created at greater expense with other materials.

The key innovations offered by RepRap are

  • the use of open-source software to create parts and operate machines,
  • designing the printing unit to be replicatable, and
  • limiting the system to creating pieces to be assembled, rather than whole devices
Dr. Adrian Bowyer believes that bring the price of 3D replication down will spark a very personalized revolution:

“People have been talking for years about the cost of these machines dropping to be about the same as a computer printer,” said Dr Bowyer. “But it hasn’t happened. Maybe my idea will allow this to occur.”

“The most interesting part of this is that we’re going to give it away,” he said. “At the moment an industrial company consists of hundreds of people building and making things. If these machines take off, it will give individual people the chance to do this themselves, and we are talking about making a lot of our consumer goods – the effect this has on industry and society could be dramatic.”

The replicator would be a refrigerator-sized machine that would be a form of Universal Constructor, proposed in theory by John von Neumann in the 1950's.

In his famous 1984 novel Neuromancer, William Gibson mentioned the idea of a nanofax that would allow convenience stores to literally print out what you wanted from a catalog, rather than needing to transport and store lots of different products.

Science fiction readers may also remember what was probably the first reference to a self-reproducing factory or manufacturing environment in science fiction - the autofac from his 1955 short story of the same name.

Read more at New machines could turn homes into small factories, 3D printer to churn out copies of itself and the RepRap website.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 3/25/2005)

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