Prepare for the Overlords!
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
RepRap, that can replicate its own body (rightIt has been called the invention that will bring down global capitalism, start a second industrial revolution and save the environment - and it might just put Santa out of a job too.
The "self-replicating rapid prototyper", or RepRap for short, is a machine that literally prints 3D objects from a digital design. Its creators hope that in the future it will be a must-have mod con for every home. Instead of queueing for this year's equivalent of Buzz Lightyear, Robosapiens or TMX Elmo, parents will simply download the sought-after design off the internet and print it out.
"If people can make anything for themselves what's the point in going to the shops?" said Adrian Bowyer at Bath University who started the project.
The Santa machine works like a printer, except that rather than shooting ink out of a moving nozzle it squirts molten plastic in layers. These build up to make 3D shapes. To date the machine has made a belt buckle, a scale architectural model and even one of its own components. Dr Bowyer said that soon it would be able to make items using other materials. "In principle it could make almost any item that people want," he said.
So-called rapid prototyping machines that manufacture objects from digital designs have been around since the 1980s, although they still cost upwards of £20,000 and mostly have specialised industrial applications.
The difference with RepRap, which is the size of a fridge, is that the ideas behind it are not owned by anyone. Dr Bowyer's vision is a machine that can be made, adapted and improved by its users. "I did not want an individual, company or country to make money from this," he said.
If Dr Bowyer's vision is realised there could be profound implications for the global economy. Instead of large companies manufacturing large numbers of consumer goods and distributing them to shops, consumers would buy or share designs on the internet, manufacturing items on their own replication machines.
"At this time of year, toy companies lose thousands by not being able to get toys to the market or having toys they can't sell... This way the product would always be available and you would be able to reuse materials afterwards perhaps in another product," said Professor David Wimpenny of De Montfort University, Leicester. "It would revolutionise Christmas."
Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg, an online repository of more than 100,000 e-books, predicts that if RepRap takes off, vested interests in industry will fight the technology tooth and nail.
"In 30 years replicators are going to be able to make things out of all sorts of stuff," he said. "Somewhere along this line the intellectual property people are going to come in and say 'No we
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