While Hack a Day’s modus operandi is serving up hacks from around the Internet, sometimes we feel the need to exercise a bit of editorial freedom. A thousand words is a bit awkward for the front page, so feel free to skip the break and head straight to the full text of this article.
It’s no secret myself and my fellow writers for Hack a Day are impressed with the concept of a personal 3D printer. We’ve seen many, many, builds over the years where a 3D printer is a vital tool or the build itself.
Personally, I love the idea of having a 3D printer. I’ve built a Prusa Mendel over the past few months - Sanguinololu electronics, [Josef Prusa]‘s PCB heated bed, and a very nice Budaschnozzle 1.0 from the awesome people at LulzBot. I’ve even made some really cool bits of plastic with it, including the GEB cube from the inside cover of Gödel, Escher, Bach (a very tricky object to realize in a physical form, but not a bad attempt for the third thing I’ve ever printed, including calibration cubes). Right now I’m working on the wheel design for a rocker-bogie suspension system I hope to finish by early August when the next Mars rover lands. My Prusa is a wonderful tool; it’s not a garage filled with a mill, lathe, and woodworking tools, but it’s a start. I think of it as the Shopsmith of the 21st century.
Lately I’ve become more aware of the problems the RepRap and 3D printer community will have to deal with in the very near future, and the possible solution that led me to write this little rant.
Infinite variety in infinite combinations
If I were to start researching what 3D printer to buy or build now, I would be faced with even more options than I had just one year ago. Even if I limited myself to a printer under the RepRap banner, I would need to choose between the Mendel, the MendelMax, Prusa, or Mendel90 derivatives, the Huxley, the Printrbot-based Wallace, this neat folding RepRap, and even one that can print its own case.
Outside of “official” RepRaps, there’s the Makerbot Thing-O-Matic, Replicator, and the deprecated Cupcake CNC, as well as Makergear Mosaic, Ulitmaker, SUMPOD, Printrbot, and the UP! 3D printer, among others.
Keep in mind that this list is not complete and only includes the hardware for molten plastic printers, not laser-cured UV resin or laser sintering printers. There’s also the issue of a dozen versions of electronics boards, a handful of firmwares, and a few types of host software available for each and every machine. In short, the 3D printer community is fractured nearly beyond repair.
What we should do
The father of the RepRap, [Adrian Bowyer], came up with the idea of a biologically inspired self-replicating machine nearly 10 years ago. The RepRap, as originally envisioned, was a physical manifestation of a Von Neumann Universal Constructor. [Bowyer]‘s idea of a 3D printer serving as the foundation of a Universal Constructor models biological life and evolution; a machine designed to make parts for itself ‘evolves’ with each generation being more capable than the last. This idea caught on, and the huge abundance and variety of RepRaps and other 3D printers is like the diversification of flora and faunae of the Cambrian explosion.
This diversification is not without evolutionary dead ends; useful add-ons like the automated build platform are compartmentalized and only available for the Cupcake and Thing-O-Matic. Small keypads for computer-less printing are not always interchangeable between electronics boards and firmware versions. Obviously, there needs to be a standardization; like a comet smashing into the Yucatán peninsula, it may be time to wipe the dinosaur designs off the map.
What will happen anyway
In [Adrian Bowyer]‘s vision of self-reproducing machines, we serve as hosts to the virus-like RepRaps that copy themselves and are assembled by humans. We are the evolutionary force that guides new generations of self-replicating machines. It’s time for us to start acting like intelligent designers.
What I’m suggesting is simple; have the RepRap Core Team define standards for officially sanctioned RepRaps. Throw a few designs up for review, like the Prusa Iteration 2, the Makerbot Replicator, and the Printrbot, and pick the best half-dozen machines from the lot, and put the RepRap name on them. Repeat that every six months or so, gradually improving each model along the way. Put the faith of the RepRap community behind every machine. Make “RepRap” a generic trademark. Put value into the RepRap name so in 50 years everyone has “a RepRap” on their desk instead of “a fused filament fabrication rapid prototyping device.”
What’s in a name
With a half-dozen designs for 3D printers, what do we gain? The combined development skill of hundreds of hobbyists, tinkerers, and makers from around the world for starters. Hundreds of people working on a hundreds of designs brings is a linear development process, and doesn’t benefit the project as a whole. It’s a piecemeal approach that invests too much time towards reinventing the wheel.
Hundreds of people working on a small handful of designs turns the linear development into an exponential development process. A limited set of possible machines means more improvements per model for every generation. If 3D printers are “breeding” exponentially, it follows they should improve exponentially.
Not only would we get a more directed development, but it would become feasible for someone to hand the models of a set of printed parts to an injection molding factory in China without worrying about ‘next week’s model.’ With a set of standards, RepRap kit makers can invest in the tooling to mass-produce kits instead of relying on a shelf full of printers to make the next generation of kits.
Parallels to Parallax
There is a remarkable similarity to what I’m suggesting and another well-known open source project. In 2005, this was the Arduino. Just take a look at how far the Arduino has come in seven short years: there’s a USB port, a better microprocessor, a huge library of example code, and a reduced parts count between the Arduino Serial and the Arduino Uno. Development on the Arduino still continues, and now there are Ethernet Arduinos and Motor Shields that provide a standard library of hardware and software for others to improve upon.
Nothing about the Arduino is new; the BASIC Stamp had been wrapping a microcontroller and peripheral components in a single package for years before the Arduino. Now, the Arduino is available in every Radio Shack while capable hardware like the Handy Board is relegated to educational pricing and the closets of schoolrooms. All this was due in part to the Arduino team defining a standard board and IDE. Without this, the Arduino would not be what it is today.
The RepRap can easily become the next Kleenex, Xerox, Thermos, or Aspirin. All it takes is a benevolent dictator to decide what is best for all of us. As with the Arduino, development of peripherals and improvements will continue. The best printers will rise to the top, and we’ll finally become the intelligent designers a RepRap allows us all to be.
Alright, rant over. It’s just an idea that I’ve been throwing around for a while. If you’ve got a rebuttal, or would like to add your own thoughts, drop a note in the comments. We now return you to your regularly scheduled build posts.