Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath, is a man who thinks big. He’d like to eliminate factories, trucking and money, but he’ll start with building some very clever robots.
In this, he’s inspired by one of humanity’s oldest technologies – breeding. This technology, which came into play shortly after the ice ages, allows us to “manipulate matter at the molecular scale”, turning wolves into dogs, and using simple tools, like animal pens and potting sheds.
Breeding can lead to fascinating sorts of symbiosis, relationships between organisms that are deeply counter-intuitive. Chickens, he tells us, “can’t run, can’t fly and taste good, which is usually a recipe for evolutionary disaster.” But because humans help chickens replicate, they’re the most evolutionarily successful bird species ever, with 15 billion chickens alive worldwide.
The best thing about breeding, of course, is that your end products reproduce themselves. Bowyer would like the same thing to happen with technical objects – he’d like them to exist symbiotically with people, “giving us goods in exchange for our help in replicating.”
This philosophy informs RepRap – the replicating rapid prototyper. It’s a table-sized machine made from steel rods and plastic bits that serves as a 3D printer, a “fused desposition modeler”. Basically, it’s a glue gun that can move in three dimensions, placing thin layers of glue to build solid objects. RepRap is a tool that can build the plastic parts of another RepRap machine. These parts are only 60% of the machine – the remainder are objects that are easy to find and purchase inexpensively, almost anywhere in the world: a small electric motor, nuts, bolts and steel rods. It currently costs $400 to build.
The goal is to open source the design. Not only will this help the design evolve, but it helps deal with a fundamental problem – how can you sell a machine that can reproduce itself? The machine is designed to replace traditional injection molding machines. Those machines cost at least $40,000, and can produce 10,000 combs per hour. A machine that could produce only one comb a day and reproduce itself could outpace it within 18 days, with an expotential growth in creating machines.
Obviously, the challenge is feeding these machines. The proposed solution is to use polylactic acid, a plastic that can be created from fermenting starch. With a small plot of land, you can grow your own starch crop, a self-replicating supply of feedstock.
If everyone had their own factory, Bowyer asks, how does this impact factories? Transport of good from factories? Ultimately, how does this change how we think about money? He closes with a quote from Iain Banks: “Money is a sign of poverty.” In a world where anyone can grow and produce what they need, perhaps that’s true.
In questions, Bowyer admits that the current prototype needs to develop significantly further before it’s truly useful. The next step will be a product that can incorporate pre-made circutry into the plastic parts. It’s a long way from being able to make that circutry yourself, but an interesting midpoint in the process.
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