words William Wiles
An engineer at Bath University has successfully tested a rapid-prototyping machine that can reproduce itself. Components made by a “RepRap” device, developed by Dr Adrian Bowyer, have now been assembled into a second, working rapid-prototyper, which was immediately set to work creating a third. Bowyer detailed the revolutionary potential of the RepRap in a feature for icon last year, and the completion of the first working “cloned” device is a major landmark on the road towards his vision of democratic, eco-friendly home manufacturing.
“The idea is that any individual who owns the RepRap can make a copy of it to give to a friend,” says Bowyer. The RepRap can make all of its own plastic components. The few bits and pieces that it can’t make have to be cheap and available everywhere in the world. Fortunately, a human being is required to assemble the device once all the pieces have been brought together. “It’s symbiotic with people, in a way,” Bowyer says.
But the RepRap isn’t limited to just making copies of its own components – it can make almost any plastic object. “We’ve made children’s shoes with it, we’ve made coat hooks and door handles,” Bowyer says. “Mundane objects, I realise, but the absolute bedrock of the human economy. We want to show that we can make lots of mundane, dowdy things that people aren’t very interested in, but are essential for carrying on our lives.”
At the moment, Bowyer claims, “about 100 people around the world” have either made a RepRap or are in the process of making one. The instructions to make one for yourself are available for free from the RepRap website and the materials cost about £300 in total.
Now that the RepRap has been successfully replicated, the focus for Bowyer’s team is using it to create more complicated objects, in particular circuit boards. Another focus for research is the materials the RepRap uses to fabricate objects. At the moment its raw material is standard plastic welding rods, but Bowyer is hopeful that it will soon be able to handle polylactic acid, an organic, biodegradable plastic made from vegetable starch. “If you can make the plastic yourself from a plant, then not only do you have a self-replicating machine, you also have a self-replicating source of materials, independent of industry,” he says.
Top image On the left is the RepRap “parent”; on the right is its “child”
A RepRap coat hook