Adrian Bowyer continues to make progress with RepRap. Once operational his RepRap machine will be a self-replicating universal constructor capable of making almost anything that it’s given plans for – including itself.
This is a picture of the metal deposition head. It is made almost entirely from rapid prototyped parts. The first version of the RepRap will not be a perfect self-replicator. It will be able to replicate most of its own parts, but electric motors and other small parts like screws will have to be bought elsewhere.
Even with imperfect self-replication these machines will be subject to exponential distribution and fast evolutionary development.
Of course I was quite excited when Dr. Bowyer responded to my interview request:
For the benefit of those who’ve never heard of a Rapid-Prototyper, what exactly are you working on?
Rapid prototypers are machines that allow the direct manufacture of objects from geometrical descriptions of them in a computer. The objects are usually made from various plastics, but some machines work with metals and other materials.
We are trying to make a rapid prototyper that can manufacture the majority of its own component parts (it wouldn’t be able to do integrated circuits, for example, but it would be able to do all its mechanical parts and circuitry). A person would then assemble and commission the new machine and so have created a copy.
It would also be able to make a very large number of other useful objects.
At your website “reprap.org” there is a slogan “Wealth without money…” Do you foresee self-replicating manufacturing machines like the RepRap changing the world? How?
First let me say that the most probable impact of this research project is zero. That is for the simple reason that the most probable impact of every research project is zero. However, the self-copying nature of the results mean that – if it does take off – it will grow fast.
The interesting thing about a widespread takeup of this technology is the way it would bypass conventional finance. The machines would be creating great wealth, but would be almost valueless themselves. To see why this is so, suppose you had one and decided to copy it and to sell the copy. You think that if you charge $1000 that would be reasonable, and would give you a decent profit. But the person to whom you sell it can copy his or her machine and sell the copies for $900. Very quickly the cost drops to the point where the profit is shaved to the bone.
A manufacturing machine that can copy itself can create goods like no other technology we have – it is the only way to do so with exponential growth, for example. But by that very fact, both the machine and those goods have a value that, as the technology spreads, asymptotically approaches the value of the raw materials used. If you like to put it this way, the technology kills the idea of added value in material goods. Information is another matter.
There are other groups working on related projects – Paul Calvert at MIT was mentioned recently in your listserv. How is your project unique?
Lots of people are working on RP; rather fewer are working on universal constructors. I think I was the first person
To put the two together,
To realise that if you let people do the assembly and the machines make the parts you can progress much faster, and
To decide to give it all away free.
What technologies – software and hardware – must be available to assemble the first RepRap v. 1.0?
We need a decent free CAD system – at the moment we’re looking at Blender. We need control software to drive the machine, but that’s pretty low level and we can do that ourselves, we need cheap chips, electric motors, and a few other mechanical components (like self-tapping screws) that are so plentiful and low-cost already that it’s not worth bothering to try to replace them initially.
Of the technologies that you need, what do you have and what do you lack?
We’ve pretty much identified everything that we need, and – if our grant application is successful – we will have access to it all.
Can you estimate how long until you have a working prototype?
One work-in-progress picture shows that you may initially use some parts that won’t be fabricated by the machine. There were screws and a syringe in one photo. Is your ultimate goal to create a RepRap that is capable of 100% self-replication? Or will you leave that to experimenting users once you release your first version?
The later. The machine will evolve as the people who download it improve it. One of the many roads to improvement will be reducing bought-in parts.
Do you expect that the RepRap concept will be resisted by manufacturing, distribution, and retail interests? What do you think will be the ultimate outcome of this fight (if there is one)?
I am checking out the legal situation, which looks very interesting and positive. When my consultations are complete I’ll put a page on the site about that. I expect RepRap will be resisted by many industries, but I’m far too old and uninterested in that aspect of the world to take on any fights. If the idea works the resistance is bound to fail, if not the resistance will have been pointless.
So the year is 2009 (or whenever the RepRap becomes available) and I need a pocket AM/FM radio or a cell phone or a toothbrush, etc. How do I get one?
You download a design from the web (free or paid for), buy a few chips, and set your RepRap machine to work. Next day you plug in the chips, add a battery, and tune in to Grieg or Green Day, according to preference. Or maybe you just clean your teeth…
Thank you Dr. Bowyer for your thoughtful interview.
Adrian Bowyer is a senior lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, at the University of Bath. He works with the Biomimetics Research Group. Biomimetics is the branch of science that “takes ideas from nature and implements them in another technology such as engineering, design, or computing.” The RepRap concept is of interest to Biomimetics researchers because it is a machine that is predicted to grow and evolve much like life.