Open-source 3D printer copies itself

Based in the Waitakeres, in West Auckland, software developer and artist Vik Olliver is part of a team developing an open-source, self-copying 3D printer. The RepRap (Replicating Rapid-prototyper) printer can replicate and update itself. It can print its own parts, including updates, says Olliver, who is one of the core members of the RepRap team.

The 3D printer works by building components up in layers of plastic, mainly polylactic acid (PLA), which is a bio-degradable polymer made from lactic acid. The technology already exists, but commercial machines are very expensive. They also can't copy themselves, and they can't be manipulated by users, says Olliver.

RepRap has a different idea. The team, which is spread over New Zealand, the UK and the US, develops and gives away the designs for its much cheaper machine, which also has self-copying capabilities. It wants to make the machine available to anybody – including small communities in the developing world, as well as people in the developed world, says Olliver.

Accordingly, the RepRap machine is distributed, at no cost, under the GNU (General Public Licence).

RepRap's open-source project aims to keep on improving the machine. "So it can do what people want it to do", says Olliver. Improvements will go back to users and, in this way, the machine as a whole evolves, he says. The idea of evolution is important, he adds. The device Olliver is creating now will probably bear very little resemblance to the device that will appear on everybody's desks in the future, he says.

"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," he says.

Olliver works for Catalyst IT, a Wellington-based open-source business system provider. He is fortunate enough to get "Google-time" from the company, which means he is allowed to work on his own research projects one day a week -- just like employees at Google. This has led to considerable developments in the RepRap project in the last six months, his says.

New features include, for example, heads that can be changed for different kinds of plastic. A head that deposits low melting-point metal is in development, he says. The metal melts at a lower temperature than that at which plastic melts, which means the metal can be put inside plastic, says Olliver. "That means, in theory, we could build structures like motors."

RepRap also allows people to build circuits in 3D, as well as various shapes, with the result that objects, such as a cell phone, don't have to be flat, he says.

There are at least seven copies of the RepRap machine in the world that Olliver knows about. The 3D printer also allows for a new and fascinating way of communicating: Olliver can design something at home in New Zealand, which then appears on another researcher's desk, in Bath, in the UK, or the other way around.

At the moment, the RepRap uses two different kinds of plastic – PLA, a relatively rigid plastic, which is ideal for making objects such as corner brackets; and a more flexible plastic for making, for example, iPod cases, he says.

But having the machine copy itself is the most useful thing the team can make it do, and that is the primary goal of the project, says Olliver. However, it can also be used to make other things, such as wine glasses – definitely water-tight, he adds – and plastic parts for machines. When we talked to him, Olliver had just printed out a small part to fix his blender.

"We know that people are going to use the printer to try to make weapons [and] sex toys and drug paraphernalia," he says. "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."

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