The origins of RepRap, as suggested by the wikipedia article, are to make a machine that can mostly print itself.
Mostly print itself?
So why stop there? Well, three of us got to thinking and quickly realized that, while it is far fetched, there is no reason why a printer couldn’t fully reproduce itself. However, the requirements are fairly staggering. Today, only structural plastic is printed, and that is good for some prototypes and functional parts; however, products like cars, houses, bikes, and toys, need more function elements like non-porous metals, conductive wiring, printed electronics, magnets for motors, rubber for tires, and more. In addition, today’s printer resolution would need to be improved to allow for the re-invention of micro-circuits to be printed in an additive process from raw parts. Also in addition, full color printing would be desired.
The 6 Pillars of a full 3D printer include:
- Structural Plastic
- Stuctural Metal
- Structural Magnets
- A Soft, Rubbery Material
- A Conductive Printable Material
- Full Color Coatings (possibly including ‘clear’ to simulate glass)
From this list, one could see that it is possible for printer technology to grow, organically, into something that can print VERY rudimentary but fully functional parts. Take a stepper motor for example; it requires a heat-dissipating shell, a strong structural core and shaft, conductive low-resistivity wiring for electromagnetic forces, insulation for the conductive wiring, and solid magnets to interact with the electromagnets. However, surprisingly, only two materials are needed to print this: structural plastic, which also acts as insulation, and conductive polymer, which can be printed with ease within the part.
A 3D printed stepper motor would be weak; because of the high resistance of the wires, large cross-sectional areas would be needed and maximum hold strength would be weak. However, even early models might boast extremely low cost and high power-to-weight ratios that may be desirable. It is then possible to see that with moore’s law type scaling in the industry, improvements in materials, speed, and costs could make this “all inclusive” 3D printer extremely competitive with existing manufacturing practices.
In fact, if you could print a car for example, you would be able to have a better product, not an inferior one; for example, you can create dimpling in the side panels of the cars tht only special racing cars use to reduce drag today. In this way, in the future, many consumer products, such as houses, cars, and toys will become 3D printed, once the speed is fast and costs are low. This would be a revolution bigger that the internet and computer itself.
If that scares you, never fear – an idea is emergent, and its going to happen whether you want it to or not! While this technology creates many concerns, such as protecting jobs, patents, and dangerous weapons from being made, it is also extremely liberating, allowing people to do more with less. In fact, in the future of full 3D printing, the dominant highly-paid trade might become artistic engineering, because the only distinguishing factor between manufacturers is the design of a product, and not so much its cost or functionally.
Also rest assured, we are talking decades. However, we feel that this technology applied as manufacturing for the masses, a “replicator” in effect, is inevitable. Oh, and its already happening:
A (mostly) 3D printed car
A 3D printed house and prototype
A nearly fully 3D printed bicycle! -see video at the end.
For additional discussion, please post to the related reprap post.