RepRap and The End of Want

The Santa Claus Machine?

By Ian Darwin on 2008-03-09 18:40 in Category: politics java oss s/w industry

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series, one of the most pervasive inventions was the "replicator", a device that could magically create any object, including a mug filled with "Earl Grey Tea, hot". This device ended poverty on planet Earth and on all planets that were allowed access to "Federation" technology. Need food? Just ask for what you want. The replicator has post-WiMax access to vast databases with the molecular formulae for every known food and drink, as well as every known object. It also apparently ended economics and economies, since the study of economics has as its deepest basis, its most secret heart of hearts,  one person's need voluntarily to trade with another for something of value. If one can replicate anything one needs, why trade?

We are a years (if not centuries) away from being able to create such a replicator. But the first steps are being taken, and some of them with the same communal attitude that pervades ST:TNG's discussions of economics. RepRap is a project that is building simple "3D printer" replicators today. The project's web site has a subtitle of "Wealth without money..." These replicators can make small objects by a process known as fused deposition modelling (FDM for short). Commercial FDM machines cost around $30,000; the RepRap "Darwin" would cost about 1% of that, around $300-500 depending on how much you buy and how much you build.

Picture of the Darwin RepRep machine

The brainchild of Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath in the UK, the RepRap project is not only building simple replicators, but giving away all the technology to make them, and even encouraging everybody who builds one to build the key parts for two more and pass them on. All the plans are freely downloadable, so you could build one without spending a nickle with the project. Though you'll find that their buying-in-bulk policy will save you money over buying some of the components directly. All the software, similarly, is freely downloadable from SourceForge. Written in Java so that it can run on almost any computer, the main driver software is covered by the GNU Public License which allows anyone to use it freely, and prevents it, or software based on it, from being re-sold in proprietary form. A far cry from patenting the ideas and charging license fees. Although, given today's idiotic patent system, I have encouraged Bowyer to patent any key innovations and either dedidate them to the public domain or assign them to a free-patent trust. But in fact the original idea for the replicator is neither from Bowyen nor from TNG. As the RepRap web site honestly points out, the general idea seems to have been invented by famed computer science pioneer John Van Neumann, under the name "Universal Constructor". I like "replicator" better.

To be really useful, this project needs a way of creating the computer files that describe objects. There are many CAD (Computer Aided Drawing) programs around that can be used, but this is time-consuming. What if you break a cup and want to replicate one to keep a set (relatively) intact? What you want for that is a "3D Scanner."  Such things exist, at around the cost of a good computer server; see this 3D Scanner advertised at US$2,500 (web site is dysfunctional without some proprietary plugin). Presumably, the cost of these will come down, or mayhap some worthy RepRapper will publish a low-cost design for one that can be built on your existing RepRap replicator.

There are, of course, many other projects going down similar paths to openness. Open Source has been around for thirty years (long before Stallman). Open Hardware is clearly similar to early Ham Radio and do-it-yourself computers (there was even a home-made PBX).  Asterisk is open-source software that lets you more easily turn a PC into a PBX. The OpenMoko cell phone project which I have written about here and here) has always made its software available under the GPL, and recently released the CAD files for all the mechanical (e.g., case and mounting) components of their cell phones.

Keep in mind, though, that today's replicator is to the ST:TNG replicator as, say, Leonardo da Vinci's glider is to the Space Shuttle. While TNG's replicator works at the molecular level, today's RepRap is purely an electro-mechanical "3D printer", recognizably a direct  descendant of the "numerical-controlled machine tool" works of the 1960's and the inkjet printers of the 1980's. The first version (named after me, or more likely, one of my more famous distant relatives) can only make things out of thermal plastic. And a given object is likely to be all the same color. It cannot even deposit metal, thus, it cannot make circuit boards, and cannot be called "self-replicating", one test of Von Newumann's "Universal Constructor" (another key test is self-assembly).  In short, RepRap could make the tea-cup (in about a quarter hour), but not the tea. In fact, it has made shot glasses that hold whiskey, though I haven't even started building a RepRap yet, so I don't know if the particular plastic used imparts any taste to the beverage. That said, it has made many of its own parts. And never forget that the US Space Shuttle is "recognizably a direct descendant" of da Vinci's glider. Nor, that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
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