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The $100,000 3D4D Challenge – aided by machines that re-make themselves

Until a few weeks ago I confess that I didn’t know much about 3D printing … and was amazed when William Hoyle told me about a printer that could reproduce itself. Well, most of itself. Would I like to go and interview the inventor? Yes indeed.

That led to a meet-up with Dr Adrian Bowyer at Bath University, an opportunity to see the RepRap machine in action, and a small contribution to the 3D4D Challenge that is launched today by the technology charity techfortrade of which William is the chief executive.

As you’ll see from the interview, featured here, the RepRap and similar machines can take a design from a linked computer and use plastics or metal to gradually build up a three-dimensional object. There are web sites like Thingiverse that will provide designs for toys, gear wheels, gadgets and more. The Economist says this is part of The Third Industrial Revolution.

The idea behind the 3D4D Challenge is to apply the ability to design in one place, and construct in another, to the reduction of costs and poverty in communities that do not have the funds or facilities to construct, say, parts for a water pump or a prosthetic limb. If they have a RepRap printer, costing about $300, they could print out parts and maybe help develop local small businesses.

They could also print out the majority of another printer for a neighbouring community. Not everything, like the electronics, can be printed – but other necessary parts can be ordered at relatively modest cost.

The Challenge offers a prize of $100,000, with ideas being developed at workshops in New York, London, Johannesburg and Nairobi. Details of those here.

The Challenge is also being supported by 3D printer and rapid manufacturing machine companies MakerBot and Econolyst.

There’s a longer version of the interview with Adrian Bowyer here. He explains that the inspiration for the RepRap is biological, drawn in part from the symbiotic relationships between plants and bees. Plants need the bees to pollinate … RepRaps need people to put their parts together.

Adrian is keen that RepRaps should develop on the Darwinian principles of survival and development of the fittest. The best RepRaps will be copied and re-copied. To achieve that, it is important that development is unrestricted … so the design is open source. As he says, if you want your printers to multiply, the last thing you want to do is spend time in court trying to stop people copying them.

Inspirational, and useful, and fun, and getting cheaper. Must succeed.