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.
by engineers at the University of Bath could transform
the manufacture of almost all everyday household objects
by allowing people to produce them in their own homes
at the cost of a few pounds.
new system is based upon rapid prototype machines,
which are now 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
conventional rapid prototype machines cost around
£25,000 to buy. 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. These can be used to make further copies
of themselves until there are so many machines that
they become cheap enough for people to buy and use
in their homes.
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
so that all owners of an existing conventional machine
can download them for free and begin making copies
of his machine. The new copies can then be sold to
other people, who can in turn copy the machine and
the number of the self-replicating machines – there
are now thousands of conventional rapid prototype
machines – grows rapidly, so the price will fall from
£25,000 to a few hundred pounds.
have been talking for years about the cost of these
machines dropping to be about the same as a computer
printer,” said Dr Bowyer. “But it hasn’t happened.
Maybe my idea will allow this to occur.”
machine could, for instance, make a complete set of
plates, dishes and bowls out of plastic, coloured
and decorated to a design. It could also make metal
objects out of a special alloy that melts at low temperatures,
making it suitable for use in printed circuit boards
machines 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 rapid prototype machines would be useful
for producing items that are now expensive, such as
small musical instruments.
items produced could be from a few millimetres (0.25
inches) to 300 millimetres (12 inches) in length,
width and height. Larger items could be made simply
by clipping together parts of this size.
Bowyer said all that would be needed for a machine
owner would be to buy the plastic and low-temperature
alloy for a few pounds, and items could then be created
in a few minutes or a few hours depending on their
size. Designs for items could be bought – or downloaded
free – from the web. Alternatively, people could create
them for themselves on their own PCs.
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.
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.
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.”
machines would be about the size of a refrigerator,
and would self-reproduce by making a copy of themselves,
part by part. These parts would then have to be assembled
manually by their owners.
Bowyer said the machines were a form of Universal
Constructor, first proposed theoretically by the mathematician
John von Neumann in the 1950s. He also said their
progress would be similar to that of a species in
nature – as the machines replicated, so their users
would vary them to suit their needs, some making larger
objects, some more accurate devices and some making
devices more quickly.
Bowyer, and his colleague Ed Sells, have already created
a demonstration robot with an electrical circuit built
in using this technology and funding from the Nuffield
Foundation. They hope to get new funding soon to begin
work on the other stages of development.
For more details see the project's web pages at: http://staff.bath.ac.uk/ensab/replicator/
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