Machines That Build Other Machines

When the RepRap project was founded in 2005, it promised something spectacular: a machine that could build copies of itself. RepRaps were supposed to be somewhere between a grey goo and a device that could lift billions of people out of poverty by giving them self-sufficiency and the tools to make their lives better.

While the RepRap project was hugely successful in creating an open source ecosystem around 3D printers, a decade of development hasn’t produced a machine that can truly build itself. Either way, it’s usually easier and cheaper to buy a 3D printer than to build your own.

[castvee8]’s entry into the 2016 Hackaday Prize does just what the RepRap project promised ten years ago. It’s all about building machines with the ability to reproduce, creating an ecosystem of machines to build household goods. The best part? You can 3D print most of the machines. It’s the RepRap project, but for mills, lathes, microscopes, and routers. It’s an entire shop produced entirely in a 3D printer.

The idea of creating a machine shop from the most basic building materials has been around for a while. At the turn of the last century, concrete lathes and mills bootstrapped industrial economies. Decades later, [David J. Gingery] created a series of books on building a machine shop starting with a charcoal foundry. The idea of building a shop using scrap and the most minimal tools is very old, but this idea hasn’t been updated to the era where anyone can buy a 3D printer for a few hundred dollars.

So far, [castvee8] has a few homemade machine tools on the workbench, including a lathe, a tiny mill easily capable of fabricating a few circuit boards, and a little drill press. They’re all machines that can be used to make other useful items, and all allow anyone to create the devices they need.

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18 thoughts on “Machines That Build Other Machines

  1. I see a good number of parts that were not printed and cannot be with current technology though.

    How does it do just what the RepRap project promised ten years ago exactly?

    Charcoal Production

      1. I wonder if in a few thousand years (if we are still here) there will be another “primitive technology” guy running around half naked programming arduino blinking lights while the viewers of the video that was uploaded to there brain and replayed as a memory are amazed at the simplicity of it all.

    1. Not sure what category are we talking about here of course, but the simplest hobby-level desktop CNC mills can be had anywhere between $500-1000 depending on the seller, your luck etc. And we’re talking aluminium frame, linear bearing, ball screw machines, not 3D-printed plastic or laser-cut wood and acme thread, and quite decent X/Y travel as opposed to the tiny Y travel of micro desktops (the catch is the rather limited Z-travel but extending the axis should be possible if one is so inclined). If we’re talking about anything vaguely shop-level classic-mill-shaped (even if quite small) machines then all bets are off and the prices do indeed jump up.

  2. “RepRaps were supposed to be somewhere between a grey goo and a device that could lift billions of people out of poverty by giving them self-sufficiency and the tools to make their lives better.”

    Have a look at the current position of consumer 3D printing on the Gartner Hype Cycle (2015):

    Our best bets are going to start on Craigslist for the next year or so.

      1. What? You aren’t convinced that the progress of any and every technological innovation can be reduced down to the same curve? Do you think the real world is complicated or something?

  3. Machines that make machines is a good concept…but not so well applied for 3D printers. First, let’s not kid ourselves, most of the stuff that goes into a 3D printer cannot be 3D printed. Second, it would always be better to have those few parts manufactured from more resistant materials instead of 3D printed…
    I for one spend quite a significant part of print time on my 3D printer reprinting something for it….

    1. Machines have been making machines for some time now, but not autonomously, or by a single type of machine. The whole RepRap concept to me is something like the effort to produce life from scratch in a test-tube: intersting, if possible, but for practical applications, the creation of novel life-forms is easier starting with something already alive.

    2. Eh. Will it be amazing? No. But if you’re clever you can climb the ladder of shitty to less shitty to less shitty still. Think using the plastic lathe to make the parts for a shitty metal one, to make less shitty parts for a better metal one. This could be interesing if one machine allows us to build a wide array of machines from very commonly available stuffs.

      Let us not forget the 3D printer proofs of concept for tensioned arm movements that didn’t suffer from accumulated errors, having only hinged parts and not linear movements.

  4. I really feel like this is a step in the right direction. Instead of pretending that 3d printing is a “do all” solution, we work to its strong points. I’m gathering the idea here is that since re-creating a 3d printer (or mill or lathe or whatever), requires more than just some 3d printed parts, we can instead work our way up the chain. Much how we can create a 3d printer from other 3d printed parts, some electronics, and hardware-store parts, we can do the same to make a mill and lathe. Then we can use those to make more of the “heavy duty” parts that we need to make a better mill and lathe, or 3d printer, or whatever.

    So maybe a 3d printer can’t make a 3d printer, but a combination of 3d printer, mill, and lathe can make another 3d printer, mill, and lathe.

    1. Definitely the theme here, and it’s a far more robust goal.

      (fun fact: it’s ironically closer to how cells actually copy themselves using proteins; rybosomes that make proteins are actually made from a lot of different proteins)

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