For anyone who has read Cory Doctorow's Makers (and if you haven’t then I urge you to. It's free under a Creative Commons licence) the idea of a self-replicating 3D printer will not come as a surprise. However, there is still something mind-boggling about seeing one in action and thinking through some of its potential uses.
That was the treat in store for Dev8D participants today when Adrian Bowyer from the University of Bath demonstrated the RepRap. It's a 3D printer that will not only print out plastic objects – pascher-pharmacie.com from children's shoes to doorhandles – but will also print out most of itself. As Bowyer says, “anyone with a RepRap can make one for a friend!” What’s more, as it is licenced as open source, under GPL, with all the instructions available online, anyone with a RepRap can make one for a friend for free and with their own modifications and improvements.
The RepRap can currently copy about half of its own parts and the others (such as nuts and bolts) are almost entirely available from general hardware stores with a couple of specialist components needing to be bought online. At its print rate of about 19ml an hour, it takes around 2.5 days to replicate itself. It costs about £300. To put that in perspective, the cheapest commercial 3D printer costs over £10,000. On top of that, non-open source 3D printers only allow their own, branded plastic cartridges to be used – at an inflated price. And, of course, the machines do not self-replicate.
“Companies have no commercial interest in making a machine that copies itself – as a company it's the last thing you want your machine to do,” explains Bowyer. “But the fact that it is not a commercial entity does not mean that it's not in the interests of the end user.”
And the potential for the end user, particularly if that user is in a developing country, is where it gets really exciting. At the moment, the objects people are making and sharing (see http://www.thingiverse.com) are interesting but are limited by the constraints of the material the RepRap can use (it works with a plastic, polylactic acid, made from starch). When the RepRap can deal with multiple materials, such as electronic components, the landscape will really open up.
“One of the things about making stuff is that you need a lot of capital to make almost anything – it could cost thousands or millions of pounds to set up a screwdriver factory, for example – but a printer like this allows you to make them for a couple of hundred pounds. A small community could start putting a foot on the first rung of the manufacturing ladder and the ability to start manufacturing with low capital costs brings considerable benefits to the world's poorest people,” says Bowyer.
“As it's all open source they can do it without spending a penny apart from the materials and nobody can take it away from them – it's on the web and all over the planet and nobody can kill it off,” he adds.
There will undoubtedly be some commercial interests who might be very keen to try to kill off the self-replicating 3D printer. Bowyer compares the impact that printers like the RepRap will have on the manufacturing industry with the effect new digital technology had on photographic film. The difference is that, in this case, it won’t be one industry completely replaced by a technical innovation but chunks of all industries that are affected.
“It will be difficult to put this genie back in the bottle,” he says. “Industry will divide into two camps, just like with music and MP3s: those who embrace it and can see how they might benefit from having their designs replicated, and those who don’t and try to fight it.”
And what of Cory Doctorow's point that “printing AK-47s is so much weirder and more interesting as a futuristic effect of the 3D printer than printing trademarked objects will ever be”? Is Bowyer concerned that he might have made a monster?
Bowyer smiles and takes a philosophical approach to the issue. “Every technology humanity has ever created has been used to make weapons. If I really wanted to cause mayhem, I'd buy a lathe, not one of these. But having said that, yes people may use this to make weapons but it is also human nature to make far more ambulances than we make tanks. It will not change human behaviour but will allow them to behave in different ways. There will be more medical equipment printed than weapons.”
All photos by Ben O'Steen, licensed under Creative Commons