For years, he's been fixated on the idea that a human might be able to emulate this process. That, given the right tools, and the right degree of brain power, some laboratory technician could create an artificial simulacrum of a living thing.

In Bowyer's mind, 3D printing is the closest we've come to that scientific milestone. It's allowed us to create contraptions that spin exact copies of themselves.

"I certainly find the technology fascinating," the retired math professor says, "but it was only secondary. My aim was to make a useful self-replicating machine."

EFF attorney Julie Samuels is leading a fight against restrictive 3D print patents.
Juan Pardo
EFF attorney Julie Samuels is leading a fight against restrictive 3D print patents.
Andrew Rutter and R. Miloh Alexander of Type A Machines.
Mike Koozmin
Andrew Rutter and R. Miloh Alexander of Type A Machines.

In 2004, he built the first RepRap printer, a maze of metal rods and plastic clasps that resembles a toy jungle gym, with a wood platform at the top, and a spindle attached to a hornet's nest of wires. Bowyer christened it "Darwin"; "RepRap" stands for "Replicating Rapid Prototype." The finished RepRap 1.0 could repurpose about 50 percent of itself; Bowyer posted designs for the remaining electronic parts, so that anyone could order them. Bowyer shunned patents, partly for pragmatic reasons — "If you want something to copy successfully, you don't put walls in front of its ability to copy," he says — and partly because they didn't mesh with his ideology. Bowyer wants to give everyone in the world access to engineering tools. He wants to turn 3D printing into a social virus.

Type A founder Andrew Rutter is quick to spread the gospel.

"Put it this way," he says. "You give all the people in Africa an Internet connection, and suddenly they're all on Facebook." Alternatively, if you give them the tools to make a self-replicating printer, then suddenly everyone has a home factory. Not to mention everyone's socialized to be an engineer. Anyone with a RepRap can spread the means of production among all his friends, so that in time, all of them can print their own objects. And that, Rutter says, is what's going to solve the world's problems.

RepRap spawned an Internet community whose members all coalesced around the idea of open-source technology. They began publishing new designs for 3D printers online, including ideas that were purely speculative, Bowyer says, as a way to forestall other people from patenting them. As the open-source ethos caught on, the axis of power began shifting in the 3D-print industry — well beyond Bowyer's home base outside of Bristol. Open-source marked a conscious shift from the early days of patent mongering — a general redistribution of ideas and blueprints so that anyone could adapt them. And now, both attitudes are at war in Silicon Valley, and in tech culture at large.

By the mid-2000s, any regular garage tinkerer could make his own 3D printer. What had previously been a tightly controlled, well-insulated industry became the domain of funky start-ups and artists.

"Sculptors took up RepRap," Bowyer recalls, beaming. "Chefs began making machines so they could 3D-print their own food."

With the cost of materials reduced, a whole DIY infrastructure has sprung up around 3D printing over the last few years. In 2009, a San Francisco-based orthopedic surgeon founded Bespoke Innovations, a company that 3D prints prosthetic limbs. (It's now a 3D Systems subsidiary.) Last May, a 25-year-old Texas gunsmith named Cody Wilson crafted the world's first 3D printed gun; it fired 14 rounds before failing. In April, Canadian engineer Jim Kor announced plans to drive across the U.S. in a 3D-printed car with a metal engine and chassis — using only 10 gallons of fuel. He'll complete the trip in 2016.

Once the open-source movement changed the contours of the industry, San Francisco became a hub for 3D printing start-ups.

In some ways, it isn't the ideal habitat, Rutter says. The rents are too high, there's a paucity of manufacturing space, not to mention it's hard for a young start-up with an indeterminate future to negotiate with landlords who want long-term leases. But the culture here is replete with the type of people who want to dabble in risky industries, Rutter insists. With its own little nexus of maker fairs, hacker hostels, and workshops, San Francisco tends to engender small companies like Type A Machines, which began moving its operations to the East Bay when it outgrew the small workshop in SOMA.

"The reason manufacturing companies are springing up in San Francisco is just because the people who start them all live here," Rutter says, calling the industry a byproduct of high-tech, hacker-driven maker culture. Businesses like Bespoke, Type A, Autodesk, and the architecture firm Rael San Fratello all wanted to apply an assembly-line ethos to small-batch manufacturing. They were interested in creating efficiencies, but equally concerned about making art.


Last summer, Bryan Allen and his collaborator, Stephanie Smith, used nine Type A printers to make the Echoviren, a 10 foot by 10 foot by 8 foot edifice that they installed in a redwood grove in Mendocino. Big enough for two people to stand in, with chinks to let in sunlight and rain, the Echoviren should last between 30 and 50 years, they say — until its PLA structure rots away. It is the largest structure ever fabricated by desktop 3D print machine. It points to a future in which architects will create ginger-breaded, turreted, livable houses from their garages at home.

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4 comments
sfreptile
sfreptile

This is really not the next big thing.  Building a clay model or prototype is still faster.  A milling machine can take a block of say aluminum and make an engine.  Try that with plastic.  This is a tinker toy.  And why shouldn't there be some patent protection if it is such a great idea? 

microcapfun
microcapfun

<<That mentality prevailed in the '80s, when people like S. Scott Crump — the co-founder of a large company called Stratasys — first developed 3D-print technology, but, for one reason or another, never brought it to the market. Instead, Crump and his colleagues designed big, gorgeous, prohibitively expensive industrial printers that they only sold to architecture firms and university engineering departments. The early 3D-print manufacturers owned and controlled a piece of mind-blowing machinery, but they kept it under wraps.>>


The author is very confused and very wrong about the history of 3d printing - and the article is ridiculously stilted against patenting inventions.


micro

kloro2006
kloro2006

@microcapfun  


property is not a god-given right. or, more concretely, society is not obliged to protect any individual's rights, unless reason itself demands that it do so for its welfare. i suspect this rains on yr parade, pal. sorry 'bout that. (and yes "its own welfare" can be a slippery slope, but one for which the notion of God-given rights and similar do not provide relief.)

please respond to this if you think it might further discussion of a very important topic.

 
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