What do you think of when you hear the word printer? For most of us it conjures an image of a machine spitting out sheets of paper covered in words and pictures. But not for Dr Adrian Bowyer, founder and leading light of the RepRap (Replicating Rapid Prototyper) project, who has an altogether grander vision. Would you believe...an inexpensive printer that can print in three dimensions?
Back in 2004, Bowyer set an idea in motion to create a 3D "'printing" machine, along the lines of an industrial rapid prototyper that creates solid shapes from extruded molten plastic. Commercial versions of these machines are nothing new, and are available easily enough as long as you have $30,000 or so to spend on one.
The important thing for Bowyer was to create a version that just about anybody could afford. He figured the best way to achieve that was to design a machine that could replicate itself, and to minimize the barriers to entry by releasing all of the designs under the open source GNU General Public License.
This means that anybody who owns a RepRap can easily make more, both to give away and to use for themselves, placing almost no constraints on the uptake of the machine. And the open source license means that the machine's design can be continually improved with each generation. Bowyer's vision took a massive step towards fulfillment on May 29 2008, when the first fully operational child RepRap, named "Darwin," began making parts for its next-generation offspring.
Like its commercial big brothers, RepRap is based on plastic extrusion technology. Essentially, it allows any 3D object that can be designed on a computer to be "printed" in layers of molten plastic, using standard prototyping techniques. The plastic is inexpensive and easily available from a range of outlets, including the project's own online store, set up to distribute the parts and materials required to build RepRaps.
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