June 24, 2024

Since the early days of science fiction, people have known that eventually our path of technological evolution would lead us toward machines that could create any physical object based on specified parameters. The birth of 3D printing in 1986 was our first real step toward achieving this vision and as companies realized the tremendous savings when compared to traditional prototyping techniques, many new branches of research quickly opened up. Though the first 3D printers could only use one particular type of plastic, the demand for other materials led to techniques for rapid prototyping with metal, glass, and clay, as well as other types of plastic and hardened resin.

The first commercially available 3D bio-printer was recently announced by a company called Invetech as being capable of printing tissue and organs at the cellular level. One of the most exciting spin-offs of 3D printing is a project called RepRap, which is open-source, meaning that all its blueprints and results are publicized and can be used by anyone freely. RepRap is the first known attempt at building a self-replicating machine, the ultimate goal being to have RepRap print more RepRaps. Having undergone several revisions already, RepRap can now print all of its own plastic components and the research is currently being targetted at the printing of whole circuit boards.

Part of the project’s stated goal is to “enable the individual to manufacture many of the artifacts used in everyday life” for “a minimal outlay of capital”, so it’s not that difficult to see where a few more decades of research could lead. With the right supply of power cells and raw materials, a single RepRap could conceivably be given the blueprint for an entire building and then print up as many copies of itself as were needed to construct the building blocks and put them in place. Some have even speculated that advanced versions of RepRap will eventually be able to improve their own design, essentially beginning a path of AI evolution.

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