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Technology

The machine that can copy anything

By Simon Hooper for CNN

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This small self-replicating robot was built using the RepRap prototyping technology.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- A revolutionary machine that can copy itself and manufacture everyday objects quickly and cheaply could transform industry in the developing world, according to its creator.

The "self-replicating rapid prototyper," or "RepRap" is the brainchild of Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath in the UK.

It is based on rapid prototyping technology commonly used to manufacturer plastic components in industry from computer-generated blueprints -- effectively a form of 3D printer.

But Bowyer told CNN the RepRap's ability to copy itself could put rapid prototyping technology within reach of the world's poorest communities by alleviating the need for the sort of large-scale industrial infrastructure common across the developed world.

"People can start manufacturing goods at a low price," said Bowyer. "All one needs is a computer and a machine that can copy itself. It can spread without enormous expenditure of capital and where labor costs are low.

"It is the first technology that we can have that can simultaneously make people more wealthy while reducing the need for industrial production."

Prototyping machines currently cost around $45,000 but Bowyer believes that price could drop to a few hundred dollars as the number of self-replicating models increases exponentially.

"It makes industry a little more like agriculture," said Bowyer, who specializes in biomimetics, the study and application of natural processes in technologies such as engineering, design and computing.

"Farmers have been dealing with self-replicating products for years."

Rapid prototyping machines work by building a succession of layers, either bonded by a laser or held together by alternating layers of glue.

The key feature of the RepRap is its ability to print electrical circuits by squirting a metal alloy with a low-melting point from a heated nozzle.

The machine could build items ranging in size from a few millimeters to around 30 centimeters, such as plates, dishes, combs and musical instruments.

Larger or more complicated items could be assembled from smaller parts, and by adding extra parts such as screws and microchips.

Bowyer said the target of the project was to create a range of devices that could be assembled for around $500 using additional components commonly and cheaply available in hardware stores.

He also said that the technology could help solve some of the recycling issues commonly associated with plastics: "If the machine can copy itself, it can make its own recycler. When you break something you can just feed it into the recycler and break it down to its raw materials and re-build it.

"The key ecological point is that it cuts down on the transportation necessary both to manufacture products and to dispose of them. Every household would have its own recycling set-up.

"This is recycling heaven rather than recycling hell."

The concept of self-replicating machines dates back to the work of mathematician John von Neumann, who proposed the idea of a "Universal Constructor" that could copy itself in the 1950s.

Von Neumann suggested that the generational development of a machine would display similar characteristics to Darwinian evolution as users honed and varied its design to suit their needs.

To encourage that development, Bowyer plans to make the design of the RepRap available online and free to use, in the same way as open source software such as the Linux operating system or Mozilla's Firefox browser.

Anyone with a replicating machine could then start manufacturing copies. Once someone owned the technology they could download other designs, or create their own.

"The most interesting part of this is that we're going to give it away," said Bowyer.

"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."


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