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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.
This also stands for plastic 3D printing only. Other types of 3D printers such as metal 3D printers, liquid resin or ceramic 3D printing are not possible to be produced in this way.
3D printing a 3D printer is no different than the manufacturing method of any other 3D printed object. You can actually find the pieces online, but you might need 3D modeling or CAD software to make adjustments. Your parts would be 3D printed layer by layer, the process repeats. You should assure material extrusion runs smoothly and that it produces thin layers. You should also pay attention to the surface finish, although with FDM technology it won’t be the smoothest.
Producing your own 3D printer can actually give you a lot of room to learn. It allows you to know the project inside out and dig really deep into all the mysteries of 3D printing. You will gain a lot of knowledge, but also become an expert in case of any repairs.
3D printing gives you new design freedom. Thanks to that you can customize and personalize your own 3D printer according to your needs. No other technology gives you the opportunity to produce a fully adjustable machine to produce your parts.
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 project:
The 3D printed 3D printers made by the RepRap project use the Fused Deposition Modeling FDM printing technology, with plastic 3D printing materials. They are desktop 3D printers, and thus they are limited in terms of applications compared to industrial Additive Manufacturing .
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).
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 lower 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 project 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 printiers. But it can be used to create various 3D printed objects, for instance, consumer products, jigs and fixtures or even medical devices..
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.
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.
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