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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. 

1 Comment

  1. Now that the RepRap project has proven that it can replicate at least some of its parts, I’m curious as to your opinions of the project. Whether the RepRap would ever become a household object is of course open to debate. Personally, this machine excites me much more than any non-open source commercial 3D printer ever could, especially when considering the possibilities of a “print head capable of printing conductive material to create embedded circuits.”

    Comment by samwab — October 7, 2008 @ 07:28