Cardboard And Paperclip CNC Plotter Destined For Self-Replication

Last November, after [HomoFaciens]’ garbage-can CNC build, we laid down the gauntlet – build a working CNC from cardboard and paperclips. And now, not only does OP deliver with a working CNC plotter, he also plans to develop it into a self-replicating machine.

To be honest, we made the challenge with tongue firmly planted in cheek. After all, how could corrugated cardboard ever make a sufficiently stiff structure for the frame of a CNC machine? [HomoFaciens] worked around this by using the much less compliant chipboard – probably closest to what we’d call matboard here in the States. His templates for the machine are extremely well thought-out; the main frame is a torsion box design, and the ways and slides are intricate affairs. Non-cardboard parts include threaded rod for the lead screws, servos modified for continuous rotation, an Arduino, and the aforementioned paperclips, which find use in the user interface, limit switches, and in the extremely clever encoders for each axis. The video below shows highlights of the build and the results.

True, the machine can only move a pen about, and the precision is nothing to brag about. But it works, and it’s perfectly capable of teaching all the basics of CNC builds to a beginner, which is a key design goal. And it’s well-positioned to move to the next level and become a machine that can replicate itself. We’ll be watching this one very closely.

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Getting it Right by Getting it Wrong: RepRap and the Evolution of 3D Printing

The beginning of the DIY 3D printing movement was a heady time. There was a vision of a post-scarcity world in which everything could and would be made at home, for free. Printers printing other printers would ensure the exponential growth that would put a 3D printer in every home. As it says on the front page: “RepRap is humanity’s first general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine.” Well, kinda.

Original Darwin. Photo: Adrian Bowyer, founder of RepRap.

Just to set the record straight, I love the RepRap project. My hackerspace put our funds together to build one of the first few Darwins in the US: Zach “Hoeken” came down and delivered the cut-acrylic pieces in person. I have, sitting on my desk, a Prusa Mendel with 3D parts printed by Joseph Prusa himself, and I spent a fantastic weekend with him and Kliment Yanev (author of Pronterface) putting it together. Most everyone I’ve met in the RepRap community has been awesome, giving, and talented. The overarching goal of RepRap — getting 3D printers in as many peoples’ hands as possible — is worthy.

But one foundational RepRap idea(l) is wrong, and unfortunately it’s in the name: replication. The original plan was that RepRap printers would print other printers and soon everyone on Earth would have one. In reality, an infinitesimal percentage of RepRap owners print other printers, and the cost of a mass-produced, commercial RepRap spinoff is much less than it would cost me to print you one and source the parts. Because of economies of scale, replicating 3D printers one at a time is just wasteful. Five years ago, this was a controversial stance in the community.

On the other hand, the openness of the RepRap community has fostered great advances in the state of the DIY 3D printing art. Printers haven’t reproduced like wildfire, but ideas and designs have. It’s time to look back on the ideal of literal replication and realize that the replication of designs, building methods, and the software that drives the RepRap project is its great success. It’s the Open Hardware, smarty! A corollary of this shift in thought is to use whatever materials are at hand that make experimentation with new designs as easy as possible, including embracing cheap mass-produced machines as a first step. The number of RepRaps may never grow exponentially, but the quality and number of RepRap designs can.

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The Most Self-Replicating RepRap Yet

The goal of the RepRap project was always a machine that could replicate itself. The project began with the RepRap Darwin, a machine with a frame made nearly entirely of threaded rods, and progressed to the Mendel, with a slightly higher proportion of printed parts. Around 2011, the goal of self-replication fell by the wayside after some money was thrown around. The goal now, it seems, is to create the 3D printer with the best profit margins. That doesn’t mean there still isn’t a small contingent of RepRappers out there trying to improve the status quo and create a printer that can truly self-replicate. [Revar] is one of those tinkerers, and he has just released the RepRap Snappy, a snap-together 3D printer built nearly entirely out of 3D printed parts.

Other 3D printers designed around the idea of self-replication, like the RepRap Morgan and the Simpson family of printers, use strange kinematics. The reason for this is that Cartesian bots can’t print up to the limits of their frame, yet self-replication requires all parts be replicated at the same scale.

[Revar] is setting a new tack in the problem of printer self-replication and is joining parts together with snap fit connectors. The entire frame of the Snappy printer is built out of small parts that interlock to form larger units.

Another of the tricks up [Revar]’s scheme is reducing the number of ‘vitamins’ or parts that cannot be 3D printed. This includes belts, motors, screws, and electronics. You can’t really print machine screws yet, but [Revar] did manage to eliminate some belts and bearings. He’s using a rack and pinion system, all made with printed parts. It’s a technique that hasn’t been seen before, but it does seem to work rather well.

[Revar] has made all the files for the printed parts available in his repository. If you have enough filament, these files are enough to print 73% of the RepRap Snappy.

Thanks [Matt] for sending this one in. Video below.

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Printing circuits on the RepRap


[Rhys Jones] has been working with the RepRap team to develop a way to print circuit boards. The machine first prints the plastic substrate with channels for the metal to be deposited into. They adapted their pinch wheel feeder to work with solid core solder (flux creates a mess). The extruded solder’s specific heat isn’t hot enough to melt the plastic. They made a video (embedded below) of their test piece: an optical endstop. The team has also been experimenting with decoupling the feed mechanism from the extruder.

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