Just as computer inkjet printing revolutionised colour document production in the office and home, 3D printing is set to revolutionise how we create and use everyday objects.
Applying printing technology to the manufacture of actual 3D objects has been possible for some years, but only on large industrial machinery which was expensive to purchase and run.
Visions of a world where a simple device can print anything from cutlery to car engine parts remain in the realms of science fiction, but a team at the University of Bath have been quietly nurturing a home-grown phenomenon that allows anyone to build a working 3D printer for a few hundred dollars, and grow their own equivalent of toner to run it.
The printer, dubbed RepRap (Replicatable Rapid Prototyper), and the technology behind it, have been open sourced, and a recent study reported that the population of these home spun machines has now passed the commercial install base.
But the creators have much bigger plans, and are hoping to design each unit to be able to replicate itself with a little human oversight.
The inventor, Dr Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Bath, co-invented a method of computing called Voronoi diagrams, which are used in the wireless networking industry to calculate coverage.
V3.co.uk caught up with Dr Bowyer as he was sitting in front of a 3D printer busily replicating itself, and asked him about the project.
The RepRap project has been running for some years now. How has the
We're currently working on the second and third generations. We name them after biologists, so the first one was named Darwin, for obvious reasons. The second-generation printer is Mendel, after the famous geneticist, and the third is named Huxley.
We want Mendel and Huxley to be complementary. Huxley is almost designed to be small enough to fit in your hand, but easy to put together. It will only work with one material, but can make the 3D printed parts to replicate itself.
Mendel is a larger unit being developed to print with multiple materials. For example, I have a student working on a method of printing magnetic materials onto models so that you can print control valves for fluid dynamics that swing.
If you want to use a biological analogy, Huxley is a bacterium: very good at reproducing itself but fairly simple. Mendel is a mouse: much more complicated but not specialised around reproduction.
How many 3D printers are there based on this design?
A Masters student in Amsterdam has tried to track this and applied a number of scientific and statistical techniques to measuring numbers, based on forum activity and implied user base. He said that there were now more open source 3D printers out there than the entire inventory of commercial machines sold over the last 30 years.
The analogy with the start of the home computer revolution is pretty exact. The growth of the microcomputer outstripped DEC and others in a very short time after the launch of the Altair, but the conventional big iron server business was still the most profitable side of the equation. It isn't now, of course.
I suspect the taking-off will come a little more slowly because the printers are more difficult to make. Once you can make a printed circuit board you can make a computer easily, but with 3D printers you need electronics and mechanical device skills. I suspect they are a bit more difficult to put together than when I built my first computer in 1980, but back then the entry price was much higher than for 3D printers.
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