Back on 16 March, whilst driving, I heard a new Radio 4 programme, 'Designs on Nature', discussing rapid prototyping machines. The Royal Society trailed the programme:
First of three programmes in which Mark Stephen discovers how biologists are stealing nature's tricks, refined by many millions of years of evolution. A special branch of science called biomimetics is emerging that trains the next generation of scientists to tap this living laboratory for cutting edge, technological solutions.
The programme discussed "von Neumann machines", a term often used to refer to devices capable of self-replication. I think I'm remembering accurately that the researcher at the centre of the programme is Adrian Bowyer (Bath University) and his research project is the RepRap Project. He has a one page (pdf) summary of his project here.
A web search threw up another blogger, Toni Ertl, who had heard the programme:
There was a group working with devices called 'rapid prototyping' machines. These construct 3 dimensional objects by operating like ink jet printers, building up layers of solid material over many passes of the print head. A recent breakthrough was the ability to create items with electrical conductors embedded in the construct, allowing items made to have more than a simple mechanical function. The team were planning to develop the idea to the point where such a rapid prototyping machine could make parts to build another rapid prototyping machine.
Bath University has issued a press release (doc) which begins:
A revolutionary machine which can make everything from a cup to a clarinet quickly and cheaply could be in all our homes in the next few years. Research by engineers at the University of Bath could transform the manufacture of almost all everyday household objects by allowing ordinary people to produce them in their own homes at the cost of a few pounds. The new system is based upon Rapid Prototype Machines, which currently are used to produce plastic components for industry such as vehicle parts. The method they use, in which plastic is laid down in designs produced in 3D on computers, could be adapted to make many household items. However, conventional Rapid Prototype Machines cost around £25,000 to buy at the moment. But the latest idea, by Dr Adrian Bowyer, of the University’s Centre for Biomimetics, is that these machines should begin making copies of themselves, which can then go on to make further copies of themselves, until there are so many machines that they become cheap enough for ordinary people to buy and use in their homes.
Dr Bowyer is working on creating the 3D models needed for a Rapid Prototype Machine to make a copy of itself. When this is complete, he will put these on a website for all owners of an existing conventional machine to download for free and begin making copies of his machine. When each copy is made, the new machine can be sold to someone else, who can in turn copy the machine. As the number of the self-replicating machines – there are thousands of conventional Rapid Prototype Machines in existence – grows rapidly, so the price will fall from £25,000 to a few hundred pounds. …
Dr Bowyer said that he would publish the 3D designs and computer code for the machine to replicate itself on the web over the next four years as they are developed, until the entire machine could be copied. He said that he has not taken out a patent and will not charge for creating the design for the machine. “The most interesting part of this is that we’re going to give it away,” he said. “At the moment an industrial company consists of hundreds of people building and making things. If these machines take off it will give individual people the chance to do this themselves, and we are talking about making a lot of our consumer goods – the effect this has on industry and society could be dramatic.”
Dr Bowyer's 'machine could … make a complete set of plates, dishes and bowls out of plastic, coloured and decorated to a design. It can also make metal objects out of a special alloy that melts at low temperatures which allows it to produce printed circuit boards for electronics'. It would 'not be able to produce glass items or complex parts such as microchips, or objects that would work under intense heat such as toasters. But a digital camera could be made for a few pounds, and a lens and computer chip bought separately and added later. The machine would be useful for producing items that are now expensive, such as small musical instruments.'
Dr Bowyer's own (pdf) summary says:
In addition to having the capacity to create wealth exponentially (within resource limits), a self-replicating RP machine will also be subject to artificial selection. This is because the CAD designs for the machine have to be supplied with it for it to copy itself. Most people will use those designs as they stand; a few people will improve them. Some improvements will be made public on the Internet and will therefore spread, coming to predominate over less-good earlier designs. This is a close analogue of Darwinian evolution selecting better genotypes (the CAD designs) that construct better phenotypes (the machines themselves). Note in particular that a not-so-good machine can make a better machine to a new design if that is available.
It is not the intention of this project to profit by protecting any of the intellectual property generated. To be most useful, a self-replicating rapid prototyping machine has to be made as freely available as possible. Therefore it is intended to make all the results public, both by publishing a paper on them in the Rapid Prototyping Journal (ISSN 1355-2546) at the end of the project, and by releasing all of them — including all CAD designs — free under the GNU Public Licence on the Internet.
I was reminded of this Radio 4 programme (after it had almost been driven from my mind by a busy end of term) by Matt Jones writing today:
As one of the speakers at eTech on the coming fabrication revolution said (I think it was Saul Griffith), the design of objects, tools, devices, artifacts (and architecture?) is going to go through the same waves of democratisation, demystification and down-right gawdawful design as graphic design did with the advent of affordable desk-top publishing technology.
(I'm also now unable to get out of my mind that picture of The Whole House Machine at work — via 3 Quarks Daily.)