From Bytes to Bits – Not Sci Fi Anymore

Snap a shot with your digital camera, tweak it on your PC, upload it to the photo processor at a nearby retail megastore, and in about an hour, you’ve accomplished what would’ve required a professional photo lab not that long ago.

Ditto for desktop publishing.   Who needs to farm work out to a professional offset printing firm when you’ve got a snazzy laser printer sitting right on your desk?

What if the same could be applied to manufacturing?   Imagine designing some new widget on your PC then within a few minutes being able to hold the actual, physical item that previously existed only within your imagination.

Well, imagine no more!

RepRap or the Replication Rapid Prototyper, is an exciting grass-roots, do-it-yourself (DIY), open-source three-dimensional printing project poised to turn manufacturing on its ear!   RepRap lets you turn an idea into an object, that is, fabricate your own small plastic items, for around $500 — or less than what you would’ve spent on a decent laser printer just 5 years ago!

Photo of RepRap printer and PC

RepRap uses Fused Deposition Modeling or additive fabrication to build plastic parts layer by layer by extruding a melted strand of biodegradable plastic filament, kind of like a very precise hot glue gun.

One of the team’s core goals is that the machine be able to reproduce the components necessary to build another version of itself.   The visionary designer Dr. Adrian Bowyer gets a bit too philosophical about this “self-replication” and the exponential growth that it may bring about but the fact that the RepRap can create more than 60% of the parts needed to build subsequent versions is quite an engineering feat.   In addition, the project team has focused on using off-the-shelf parts and adhered to open-source design, so it’s ever-evolving that RepRap owners can download plans for, and fabricate, upgrades at will!

(About 3 months ago, a RepRap equipped with a swappable head system capable of printing both plastic & conductive solder created the first electronic circuit boards, thereby even further increasing the number of its own components that the machine can create.   And the design team believes they’ll also be able to “print” with silicon polymer to produce gaskets & other flexible parts soon.)

In keeping with the overall open-source design goal, the hardware is driven by the free, Java-based Art of Illusion (AoI) 3D modeling CAD software.

This is very much a project for advanced DIY electronics hobbyists rather than the average consumer, but it’s a fascinating concept.   And for the slightly less industrious, at least one company already makes a complete, ready-to-assemble, that you can purchase for about $1,000.

Want to know more?   Check out Dr. Adrian Bowyer’s Pop!Tech conference talks:

    •   What is RepRap? Introductory Lecture – Part 1 of 2
    •   What is RepRap? Introductory Lecture – Part 2 of 2

RepRap is admittedly still a far cry from Star Trek’s instantaneous & futuristic replicators and it’s not likely to spell the end of Wal-Mart for quite some time to come.   But this kind of cheap, accessible, DIY fabrication shatters many of the traditional barriers for design protoyping & manufacturing and, given that computer-aided design shapes every manufactured item we touch, this could pave the way for vast numbers of creative minds to bring more exciting visions to reality.

Hat tip to fellow Basin blogger Joe Ewbank for mentioning RepRap in his “Stuff of the Day” post a few days ago.

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