Imagine having a machine for $500 in your living room that can take your computer based specification for a 3D object and print out a plastic replica of the object in a matter of minutes. Imagine furthermore that all of the specifications for the machine are completely open source, completely shareable and modifiable by anyone in the world, and that there is a worldwide community of volunteers working feverishly to support you and anyone else to troubleshoot and improve the machine. Imagine no longer...this machine, called a Reprap, is reality! Best of all, these machines are ultimately designed to self replicate themselves, bringing us within tantalizing reach of a long envisioned era of self replicating machines.
The Reprap machine works like this: Reprap consists of a roughly cubical half-meter frame enclosing its fabrication workspace, motors, electronic circuitry and an extruder. The extruder is a device that can squirt out complex three-dimensional patterns of molten plastic filaments that will ultimately solidify into the shape of your 3D object. Software on a PC takes design files produced by 3-D drawing programs and turns them into instructions that are sent to the Reprap over a USB connection.
This is really about as good as it gets if you are a geek. Its like having a mini factory in your own home. I personally can't wait to get my hands on one of these little miracles. So what can you make with a Reprap machine anyway?
The only limits seem to be your imagination and the physical limitations of the material, currently plastic, that is used to manufacture your object. Repraps have been used to make coat hooks, water-filter inserts, sandals, door handles, fly swatters, martini glasses, and countless other objects. See some examples below:
It all began with Dr Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, who founded and invented RepRap in 2004. Reprap was launched as a project to build an open source (ie. GPL), low cost, 3D printer capable of printing objects of any specification, including a specification for printing itself. Since the launch of the Reprap nearly 5 years ago, the project has absolutely exploded with volunteers, prototypes, and a worldwide fanbase that is ever growing and changing.
Chris DiBona, Open Source Programs Manager at Google Inc. , quoted on the Reprap website, sums it all up with this little gem:
"Think of RepRap as a China on your desktop".
Although the current Reprap is only capable of using plastic as its building material, upcoming versions will be able to use a host of different materials, opening the door to a greatly expanded world of 3D printing.
The ultimate goal of the Reprap is for it to be able to self replicate a true working replica of itself. In this regard the Reprap is making steady progress. From the Reprap website:
Not counting nuts and bolts RepRap can make 60% of its parts; the other parts are designed to be cheaply available everywhere. To increase that 60%, the next version of RepRap will be able to make its own electric circuitry - a technology we have already proved experimentally - though not its electronic chips. After that we'll look to doing transistors with it, and so on...
Even as Adrian Bowyer's Reprap project continues to flourish, a dynamic community of volunteers, organizations and companies have begun to sprout up around it. Of special note is the Reprap Research Foundation (RRRF), of which Bowyer is a director. The RRRF is the not for profit arm of the Reprap movement tasked with upholding the following mission:
To promote research in self-replicating manufacturing systems and to distribute the results of that research freely to everybody using open-source licensing.
On the commercial side of things, check out an exciting new company, Makerbot Industries, who counts as one of its founders Zack Hoeken, a director at the RRRF and a major player on the Reprap scene. Makerbot Industries offers a limited but expanding suite of tools, gadgets, and consulting that will empower a growing legion of enthusiasts to make the most of their Reprap experience. Check out this video of the Makerbot team:
Still haven't seen enough? Check out the following more detailed video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfnLtbhxsY4
Don't feel like hacking all this equipment yourself? Remember there are companies like Shapeways will mail you within days a 3D printout of specifications that you upload to their website.