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A Self-Replicating 3D Printer?

March 20, 2005

Filed under: additive manufacturing,future — Terry Wohlers @ 19:17

On March 17, 2005, a press release was issued from the University of Bath (Bath, England) titled “New machines could turn homes into small factories.” Dr. Adrian Bowyer of the university’s Centre for Biomimetics discusses how technology being developed at the university could allow people to manufacture almost all everyday household items at a cost of a few pounds. (1 pound = $1.92.) What’s more, he claims that the machine could replicate itself. This, he believes, is what would make the machine so cheap that people would buy it for their homes.  He also discusses how the machine could produce a digital camera, except for the lenses and computer chip. For more, read http://staff.bath.ac.uk/ensab/replicator and click “RepRap in the media” and “press release.”  Bowyer is standing beside a commercially available Dimension 3D printer from Stratasys. 

A reporter from New Scientist magazine called to ask for my views on Bowyer’s work. When we spoke, I had not yet read the press release and had not heard of him. Her explanation of the invention, assuming there was one, sounded intriguing, but far fetched. Her article is published at http://staff.bath.ac.uk/ensab/replicator. Having learned more about it after speaking with her, I’m even more skeptical. From what I can tell, Bowyer is talking about an idea, not technology that is proven. Why is he standing near a Dimension system and not his machine? 

It is technically possible for a 3D printer to manufacture some of itself (i.e., carefully selected individual parts), but it may not be practical from a time, cost, and materials perspective. Even a machine of the future would be limited in the types of materials it could process. Consider the precision gears, bearings, springs, motors, electronics, and so on. Don’t expect a single machine for home use to produce these metal components, in addition to the range of plastic parts for the housing, access door, latches, and buttons.

I consider myself as someone with a can-do attitude and optimistic outlook. I enjoy exploring the possibilities of the future and I’ve even made a few forecasts. At the same time, I try to be realistic. 3D printers of the future will far exceed the capabilities of those we have today. Some will even find there way into homes for use by practicing professionals working from home, entrepreneurs seeking new business opportunities, and children who like to create objects. However, it’s highly unlikely that machines in our homes will replicate themselves. In the future, a home-based 3D printer might produce “some” household products in a limited way, but if our toaster, coffee maker, or set of dishes break, we will pick up a new one at Wal-Mart for $20. 

Multicolor Parts will Flourish

March 10, 2005

Filed under: additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 07:44

For more than 15 years, I have received input from a wide range of people close to rapid prototyping. Few have expressed strong interest in multicolor models or prototypes produced from an additive fabrication process. Monochrome parts suit them just fine, they would suggest. This may be puzzling until you understand that a large percentage of models and prototypes are used for fit and assembly checking or serve as patterns to produce silicone rubber molds. Others are given to professionals for finishing and painting. A significant percentage is used to evaluate form and aesthetics, but most people in the business have accepted the fact that prototyping processes (additive or subtractive) do not produce multicolor parts. Z Corp. is the lone exception.

I remember when color document printers were on the verge of commercial introduction. At the time, few believed that there was a need for them. The printers and supplies were expensive, resolution was poor, and colors were dull. Some even predicted their demise before they began to ship to customers. Color monitors also had a rocky start, but you wouldn’t consider the purchase of a monochrome monitor today.

I am certain that color 3D printers will become popular in the future. Engineers and designers prefer to design products using a spectrum of colors, so it makes sense that they would also want to use the same colors when printing the parts. Can you imagine industrial designers limited to one color when creating new design concepts? Consider the world around us: Everything is in color and some of the most interesting objects consist of multiple colors.

Currently, Z Corp. is the only company that manufactures systems that produce multicolor parts directly using an additive process. In the future, other manufacturers will have little choice but to offer machines that produce parts in multiple colors. If they do not, they will be at a competitive disadvantage, just as monochrome printers, monitors, and televisions would be today. If you don’t believe it, just look around.