Dead ringers

A UK team has unveiled a project for a self-replicating device based on rapid prototyping technology that could have big implications for the manufacturing industry.

Researchers at the University of Bath have unveiled ambitious plans to take manufacturing technology into a new phase by developing an ‘evolutionary’ blueprint that they claim could eventually enable rapid prototyping machines to produce versions of themselves.

Dr Adrian Bowyer of the university’s biomimetics centre is currently working on a design for a rapid prototyping device that would enable it to self-replicate by making the majority of its own components.

The underlying concept is that once one machine has been designed and built, there will be an exponential growth as each system could manufacture its own parts. According to the Bath team, it could eventually lead to households using their own rapid prototyping device to produce many everyday domestic goods.

‘It occurred to me a little over a year ago that rapid prototyping machines were an ideal vehicle to try and realise a device that was invented theoretically in the middle of the 20th century by John von Neumann,’ explained Bowyer.

Neumann, a Hungarian-American mathematician, came up with the idea of the ‘Universal Constructor’ in the 1950s. Neumann envisaged a machine that could manufacture useful objects and also produce copies of itself.

The team has just completed stage one of this three-stage, four-year project. This involved developing the capability to incorporate electrical conductors into conventional rapid prototype models. The next two stages will concentrate on developing the machine’s ability to manufacture exact copies of its own constituent parts.

A small autonomous robot built in an FDM rapid prototyping machine.  It is about 200mm in diameter. The robot was made to demonstrate a new RP process for the direct incorporation of electrical conductors into rapid prototypes.

Bowyer believes that for the concept to be successful it must be placed in the public domain. Consequently as work progresses, every 3D design and computer code for the manufacture of the prototyping system will be published online, and starter kits will be made available to get individual projects underway. One of the likely consequences of this public development activity is a process of evolution, said Bowyer. Since anything that copies itself is subject to evolution, and the design is available on the web, he expects people to make changes to the original blueprint to improve it.

Bowyer claimed that the concept could eventually have big implications for manufacturing industries. ‘One of the things this might do is turn rapid prototyping from a prototyping technology to a production technology. At the moment it will not be any faster than a regular machine, but if you have 100 all producing parts this goes down to a minute or two and so it becomes far more interesting from the production side,’ he said.

According to Bowyer, the system could manufacture metal objects from a special alloy that melts at low temperatures, making it suitable for use in printed electronic circuit boards. It could also be used for producing expensive items such as small musical instruments, or to manufacture and decorate plastic plates, dishes and bowls. Bowyer added that while it would not be possible to replicate glass or microchips, users could manufacture objects such as digital cameras by adding components such as the chip and lens later.