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3D Warmup

Software developer and artist Vik Oliver is part of a multinational team developing a 3D printer that can print itself! Technically it’s called a replicating rapid prototyper or REPRAP for short.

Rapid prototyping first appeared in the 80s and was used to make prototypes and model parts.
3D printing, however, is just one way to make Rapid prototypes. Other ways include Electron Beam Melting which produces metal objects or Stereolithography which uses lasers to harden a resin. 3D printers build up successive layers of the medium they lay down like plastic until you have your final 3 dimensional object. This method is generally faster and cheaper than other methods. Still it’s not cheap. Good 3D printers can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

One of the big breakthroughs with RapRep though is its low cost. They are distributing the design and schematics for the printer at no cost under what’s called a GNU or General Public License. Supplies to build it have been estimated at 600 to 700 dollars.


“We want to make sure that everything is open, not just the design and the software you control it with, but the entire tool-chain, from the ground up,” says Oliver.

This open source project’s main goal and its other big advantage is to hopefully have people constantly improve or evolve the printer and then upload these changes so others can print the upgraded parts and incorporate the changes into their printer.

It is said that the printer can print itself but this mainly applies to the oddly shaped plastic components not the standard off the shelf pieces that you can get anywhere like the frame rods, belts, wiring etc. This is still a huge advantage though since the nonstandard parts are what’s hard and expensive to create. Injection molded plastic requires expensive molds and machines to do the injecting. Not something that’s cheap or easy to come by. Having a third party do it for you has similar drawbacks. It will be interesting to see where this leads.

Here’s a funny quote from Oliver: “We know that people are going to use the printer to try to make…sex toys and drug paraphernalia, This is obviously not what we’re hoping they are going to build. We are hoping they are going to build more and better RepRaps.”

For all of ReRap’s potential though, it seems like just a warm up to me for the real deal in 3D printing and rapid prototyping……the nanofactory.

A nanofactory may be one of the ultimate expressions of the potential of nanotechnology. As its name implies, it is a proposed type of factory or manufacturing process that builds products starting with raw molecular components or feedstock and nano-scale devices to synthesize products with atomic precision whether it is a toy for your child or a laptop for daddy.

The early days of nanotech hype were haunted with images of self-replicating nano-nightmares running amok and turning the biosphere into a grey-goo faster than you could say “Michael Chrichton”. As the concept of molecular manufacturing evolved into more of a stationary device with things like assembly lines and other factory-like components, the sci-fi movie of the week disaster scenarios seem to have died down a little.

Ralph C. Merkle, professor of computer science in the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta has said:

“We’re basically talking about high-resolution manufacturing,” “You’re building things from atoms, using molecular tools to put each atom in the right place. The idea is to scale down factory manufacturing concepts so that we’re using very small machines that can precisely arrange atoms on specific lattice sites.”

Chris Phoenix is the director of research with the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology in Brooklyn, N.Y. believes that  “Essentially a nanofactory can put atoms into configurations that are very useful, and through multiples of these configurations can build a basic material, then shapes, and then from these, build machine components on the nanoscale, If you can make bearings and rotors, then you have most of the components of an electrostatic motor. But on the nanoscale you can make it very efficient and of very high power density.”

His estimates have shown that nanofactories may be able to duplicate themselves in less than a day. This would be of course the entire factory and not just parts of it.

Think about how revolutionary this could be. Now think an order of magnitude bigger and I bet we’d still be off. From a single product perspective, an atomically precise laptop created this way could have a billion CPUs and a 100 hour battery life. Now imagine that level of improvement for many of the products you use everyday and all you have to do is just print it up (after getting the raw materials and software of course).

As fantastic as this stuff sounds, I believe we’re finally beyond the point where objections to basic feasibility are common. Many years of theoretical and experimental work has confirmed that nanofactories are in fact feasible. “A nanofactory can build its own mass and complexity within an hour, and can build things more physically complex than itself,” says Merkle, who has published extensively on the topic since the mid-1990s.

I for one hope something like this happens in my lifetime. Just imagine the sex toys.

5 comments to 3D Warmup

  • John Powell

    Cells are self-replicating nano-factories, but are so complex we can barely understand how they work much less direct them efficiently to accomplish useful things. In this way nano-technology is analogous to early industrialization. Before we domesticated horses and carrier pigeons to carry loads and messages. Now we build cars and planes to move us around. Today we rely on biology to supply us with food, medicines, and many useful materials. Tomorrow we’ll make our own more efficiently and to greater benefit to ourselves.

  • GreatZamboni

    People were afraid that the nanomachines would run a muck? That wouldn’t be so bad. I mean, I’m more of mamorpuhger guy myself, but text-based online RPGs can be fun, too. Now, if they ran amok, that would be problematic.

  • Thanks GZ,
    I have to stop proofreading these at 1:30 in the morning.
    I just found out that “amuck” can be used instead of amok, so technically, I was off by just a space ;-) I did however change it to amok above if for no other reason than the Classic Trek episode.

  • SJC

    Today: printers that can make their own components.
    Tomorrow: Muscle-bound Austrian cyborgs with huge guns.
    Pursue this technology at your own peril.

  • becomingdigital

    How surprising it is that one of Bob’s posts devolved into a discussion of nano[insert noun here]. Can’t wait to hear it again on the podcast… ;-)

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