Can you 3D print a 3D printer?
Can a 3D printer print a 3D printer? That’s a question we’re often asked in the 3D printing industry. Indeed, it would be fascinating to be able to self-replicate machines, right? It could open broad possibilities for many fields and lead to a new industrial revolution, from manufacturing to construction, create new types of supply chain, or even change the world with new spatial construction techniques. So, can you 3D print a 3D printer? Discover the answer now!
Can you 3D print a 3D printer?
Yes, it’s possible to 3D print a 3D printer! Some self-replicating 3D printers have been created, and there are already several versions of them. Though, these types of 3D printers can’t do the whole job themselves. You have to 3D print each part of the 3D printer individually, and then assemble them yourself. Also, there are still a few parts of a 3D printer that can’t be 3D printed as electronic components. So you can 3D print a 3D printer, but not totally for now.
RepRap, the first self-replicating 3D printer
The first self-replicating 3D printer was invented by Dr. Adrian Bowyer through the RepRap project, senior lecturer at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath, who started his research in 2005. His first functional machine, called the RepRap “Darwin”, with 50% of self-replicated parts, was unveiled in 2008.
Here’s a video of Adrian Bowyer assembling the RepRap:
The 3D printed 3D printers made by the RepRap project use the FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) printing technology, with plastic 3D printing materials. They are desktop 3D printers, and thus they are limited in terms of applications compared to industrial machines.
Moreover, they can’t totally print themselves. As they are plastic 3D printers made of plastic parts, they can 3D print some parts of themselves, just like they could totally build other 3D printed objects. You then need to assemble them yourself and to add the components who can’t be 3D printed, like electronics or metal parts (since it’s a plastic 3D printer).
3D printed 3D printer: Improving the technology with iterations like Prusa i3
Over the years, since the RepRap project is open source, with all the 3D models available online, there have been many iterations of this printable 3D printer from various manufacturing aficionados. The Prusa i3 is part of these improvements, and it’s now one of the most used 3D printers in the world. It was designed by Josef Prusa in 2012. Two improved versions have been released since then: the Prusa i3 MK2 in 2016, and the Prusa i3 MK2S in 2017.
Why is it such a success? Its low cost (you can find its 3D design files for free), and the ease of construction and of modification have made it a must-have for hobbyists, but also for some professionals (even if it doesn’t replace the performance of an industrial 3D printer). It’s popular also in the education field.
Like the previous versions of the RepRap self-replicating 3D printers, it can only 3D print some of its parts, the ones that are in plastic, but not the metal parts, nor the electronic components. Indeed, it’s not suited yet for metal 3D printing. But it can be used to create various 3D printed objects.
Building the future of self-replicating 3D printers: Spatial applications
A self-replicating desktop 3D printer is an interesting concept, but in the end, we could 3D print 3D printers for applications way more impacting. The most interesting one is clearly spatial exploration.
Indeed, there are many scientists trying to find a way to 3D print a 3D printer directly in space. One of these machines would be sent to the moon (as a first step), and then recreate itself from lunar materials. A team of researchers from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa is currently working on this. Their goal is to then 3D print whole lunar bases, as well as conducting in-space manufacturing of satellites.
This self-replication machine 3D prints a mix of materials such as plastic and iron, in varying proportions, depending on the part needed. The raw material needed to create a similar mixture could be extracted from the lunar regolith, a material covering almost the entire lunar surface.
One of the hardest parts to build when 3D printing a 3D printer is the motor. Alex Ellery, who is leading the project, said in June that the team was close to being capable of printing a fully functioning electric motor from a material similar to what can be sourced on the moon, which is a true revolution.
Here’s one of the versions of the 3D printed motor:
Credits: Alex Ellery via GIPHY
But there’s another prerequisite for a fully self-replication: electronics. Ellery explained that this one might take much longer to solve. Once it will be possible to use the exact same 3D printed 3D printers to create motors and electronics, these machines will allow the creation of any kind of manufacturing machine, like 3D printers, milling machines, drills or excavating machines. Thus, they will not just self-replicate, but also contribute to the creation of spatial manufacturing centers. And sending only one of these 3D printers to space will allow the creation of huge factories.
Apart from that, the potential applications of additive manufacturing from space are numerous. Indeed, it would also be possible to 3D print space-based solar panels on satellites turning sunlight into energy and to then send this solar power down to earth. Or even to build 3D printable space shields to protect the Earth against solar radiation to fight against global warming.
So now you know that you can 3D print a 3D printer, but that this 3D printing technology will evolve a lot in the upcoming years, in order to become an even more important innovation that could change the world! To learn more about the latest innovations regarding the 3D printing industry, you can subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter! You will learn more about various topics, from 3D scanning to 3D bioprinting, hear many popular stories about additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping, and even get some technical tips to make the most of additive manufacturing and to create great 3D printing projects, like how to edit your stl files, or guides to metal 3D printing. Welcome on board!