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Flirting with Life: RepRap 3-D Printer Copies Its Way Into the World

By Michael Keller

Nobody knows how many plastic-parts-producing RepRap 3-D printers there are in the world. The best estimate, from the man who developed it, is that 10,000 to 30,000 of the desktop-sized manufacturing machines now exist.

It’s hard to get a precise number because one of the core tenets of RepRap—short for replicating rapid prototyper—was to make a printer that could print out more copies of itself.

“I just started this project; I’m not in control of it,” says Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a retired University of Bath engineer who created the first version of the printer and who now runs a company that makes and sells RepRap kits.

Though he made arguably the most successful personal 3-D printer for the maker community to date, Bowyer says his primary interest wasn’t in turning the manufacturing world on its head by releasing the designs for free so that anyone could make their own RepRap. Instead, he was consumed by the idea of machines attaining the ability to self-replicate.

He wanted the printer to reproduce, but he knew he needed people to help it. That’s why he borrowed an idea from nature: the symbiotic relationship often found between plants and animals.

Dr. Adrian Bowyer, inventor of the RepRap 3-D printer. Courtesy adrianbowyer.net.

Like bees that help flowering plants to reproduce by carrying pollen from one to another, a person who has a RepRap can make another through the open distribution of blueprints, mostly with parts that the printer can produce.

By allowing this free reproduction, Bowyer hopes to harness the evolutionary power of artificial selection, where people improve upon the RepRap design and the most successful upgrades are passed on to succeeding generations.

“Good designs will dominate the market,” Bowyer says. “When a better design is posted, the RepRap can put out an upgraded version of itself. In fact, every time someone sells a 3-D printer that is not a RepRap I rejoice, because they have just bought a machine that can make a RepRap.”

The machine’s evolution over generations of builds is clearly part of the DNA Bowyer and his colleagues have built into it. The first printer he unveiled with the name Darwin. The second was named after Gregor Mendel, whose work on inheritance started modern genetics. The third unit was dubbed Huxley, after the English biologist who was an ardent defender of Darwin’s concepts concerning evolution.

The idea seems to be working, at least according to a small 2012 survey of 358 respondents that found a plurality of 26 percent had used a RepRap printer. And Bowyer says that RepRap’s most successful competitors are based on RepRap’s design.

Txchnologist: Reproduction and change through adaptation are considered some of the hallmarks of life. Are RepRap 3-D printers alive?

Adrian Bowyer: It’s true that things that copy themselves tend toward life … of course, life falls along a spectrum. The RepRap machine only makes 50 percent of its parts or parts you would need to put together a new RepRap. But let’s have some context. We humans only make about 60 percent of our own parts—out of the 20 amino acids, we only make 12 ourselves; the other eight we have to get from our food.

Txch: We’ve been reporting on 3-D printing for a couple of weeks now and the excitement around the technology is almost palpable. What’s behind all this buzz?

AB: If modesty didn’t prevent me from saying, I’d say that it was all pretty quiet until I started RepRap in 2004. Until then, a commercial 3-D printer cost 25,000 to 35,000 dollars. I thought, “This is ridiculous. Why not make a machine for a few hundred dollars?” That started to engender interest.

Txch: Since this is a prototype- or model-producing machine, what effect is it having on innovation?

AB: It would be strange if this doesn’t considerably enhance innovation. There are things that you or I can’t even think of that will happen because of it. Far more people will invent far more machines—some won’t be good and some will. The fact that most will be rubbish doesn’t matter at all. It’s the 1 percent that isn’t rubbish that will matter.

Txch: Where is 3-D printing going?

AB: For 3-D printing in general, the next innovation will be multimaterials—being able to print with more than one type of substance. For RepRap, its evolution is toward ease of assembly—there is very strong Darwinian pressure toward better design.

People will eventually print their own electronics. They’ll download a design for a mobile phone and print it. That will be interesting—manufacturing and shipping is dedicated to these types of products and printing on demand will change the whole industry, possibly in the same sense as the music and movie industry is changing.

It will be quite interesting if the technology moves along and becomes ubiquitous like the Web. You could say that this is doing for material objects what the Web did for digital objects.

I don’t see a technical barrier to it becoming ubiquitous like that. If 3-D printing becomes useful to the average human, then there are no technical or financial reasons for it not to spread.

Top image: RepRap’s first “Darwin” 3-D printer. Courtesy reprap.org.

Michael Keller is the Managing Editor of Txchnologist. His work has appeared online and in newspapers, magazines and books, including the graphic novel Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Reach him at mkeller@groupsjr.com.

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