Scientists build robot that can replicate itself

Machine designed to create 3-D plastic objects based on blueprint.

English researchers have developed a robot that can not only create 3D replicas of objects like shoes and door handles - it also can replicate itself.

Scientists from the University of Bath in England unveiled an open-source machine that acts like a three-dimensional printer. Instead of printing out documents or pictures on paper, this printer uses blueprints to produce 3D plastic objects.

The machine has been dubbed RepRap, which is short for replicating rapid-prototyper.

The goal is to eventually build a robot that can produce individual processors and circuit boards so people can build their own computers, according to Zack Smith, director of the RepRap Research Foundation.

"It's a printing press for the digital age," Smith told Computerworld. "The goal is to have one on everyone's desk. If it could build circuit boards, someone could design and build their own at home. Open-source electronics is a movement that's really taking hold."

While 3D printers have been commercially available for about 25 years, RepRap is the first that can essentially create its own structural parts, said team member, Vik Olliver, in a written statement.

Smith explained that unlike a regular printer that uses ink, RepRap heats up plastic and then squeezes it out into a line. The lines are built up into usable forms as they solidify. So far, the robot has made everyday plastic objects, like door handles, sandals and coat hooks. The machine has also successfully copied all of its own structural pieces.

For a full replication of all its own parts, Smith said that might be as far away as 20 years down the road. "Being able to replicate a computer chip would take a whole lot of precision," he added. "For me, the exciting part is we're building a tool that can build other things."

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Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
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