Thursday, 15 April 2010

Replicating Machines

In Neal Stephenson’s novel, The Diamond Age, one of the characters makes the observation, ‘There were only ever two industries, the industry of things and the industry of entertainment.’ Within The Diamond Age the industry of things has been replaced by a technology where even the very poor have access to a household device which, when supplied with power, hydrogen and a suitable design template will produce food, clothes and gadgets on demand.

The design information is turned into a real world object by a tabletop factory. The consequences of such a machine would be immense. If anything we want can be swiftly produced to a template the only meaningful property becomes intellectual property.

Diamond Age matter compilers are a little ways yet in the future but it just so happens that there are a few people who are not happy to sit around waiting while nanotech catches up with Neal Stephenson. Adrian Bowyer, a mechanical engineer at the University of Bath is pushing the envelope with his ideas for RepRap, self-replicating, rapid prototyping machines. 

Rapid-prototyping has been around for a while. Objects which had previously only existed on drawings boards can be turned relatively quickly into three dimensional models. One way of doing this is by depositing molten plastic in layers using a precision servo system. This technique, which has certain similarities to inkjet printing, is usually referred to as 3D printing.

Commercial 3D printers are very expensively and at 20K Euros apiece are not the stuff of impulse buys. One way to promote the use of 3D printers is to design a printer that can print (some of) its own parts. This video 3D printer shows a budget, home made 3D printer at work.

This machine is called a Mendel. It is Adrian Bowyer’s second design. It is printing a set of parts for another Mendel. Adrian designed a 3D printer but he designed one with parts that it could make itself. This device is a so called Clanking Replicator, which is the name coined for a replicator that use conventional rather than nanotech parts.

It hardly needs to be said that this little robot, which is little more than a three axis servo system, falls well short of being capable of complete replication. Techniques for manufacturing printed circuits, where the machine can lay down low melt point metal, to serve as circuit tracks and wiring are being developed. But that leaves a lot of work to be done.

Bowyer isn’t building a replicator to make money out of it. Although there are a few kits for sale there isn’t a replicator business model as such. If the first thing you do with a new replicator is use it to build other replicators how will you make money building replicators? They don’t even try. The whole project adheres to the open source ethic. This gives builders visibility of all the design, even all the code that controls the system. This allows people to modify and debug it. And nobody owns the design.

Of course, aside from replicating itself the system can make a variety of neat items and this is where it gets interesting. A software package called Art_of_Illusion is available, also free, which can be used to model new parts and THINGIVERSE contains a huge variety of items that can be produced using a 3D printer.

So can replicators change the world? Recently we've seen the industry of record production being decimated by iTunes and the various file sharing sites. Books too are moving towards print on demand and electronic readers. We could expect a complete inversion of the rest of the economy if production on demand spread to artifacts.

In current business models, where artefacts are produced in highly efficient Asian factories, manufacture is a small part of the current commercial story. The gadget itself might as well have been grown in a plantation rather than manufactured. The main profit comes from the various parties who ‘add value’ through shipping, wholesale distribution, retail distribution, advertising and packaging. An object that sells for a hundred pounds in a Basingstoke mall might have earned the Asian manufacturer maybe ten pounds, but the job of getting the gadget from the factory into the consumer hands earns the rest of the chain ninety pounds. But with a desktop factory, we lose the need for that and the need for a whole bunch of carbon footprint caused by shipping stuff around the world.

I can’t help think that Adrian Bowyer’s RepRap is the way of the future. Bowyer won’t make any money out of it but that probably doesn’t worry him. I see he’s written an article, it’s interesting. Wealth_Without_Money

1 comment:

  1. I am a little worried about how we'll adapt to 3d printing as a society. I guess that instead of exchanging products, we'll exchange designs, but I think there will probably be a fair bit of strum und wotsit getting from here to there.

    I loved 'The Diamond Age', and 'Snow Crash' even more so. I must confess I've been less impressed by Stephensons other works, I liked 'Cryptonomicon', but it didn't light me up to the same extent.