Jul 20, 2017 | By David

One of the most interesting applications for 3D printing that is currently being researched is self-replicating robotics. A 3D printer should eventually be developed that will effectively be able to 3D print another version of itself, as well as all kinds of other products and components. (Not an ordinary RepRap, but something more complete and complex.)

This would be incredibly useful for many different purposes, including unmanned space exploration. A team of researchers at North Dakota State University has recently completed testing on its own 3D printed 3D printer, taking a small but significant step in the development of this idea which could turn out to be a giant leap for 3D printing technology.

The self-replicating 3D printer was built by a multi-disciplinary team, made up of engineers and computer scientists at NDSU. Its design is modular, and the project's end goal is to develop 3D printing technology that is capable of printing anything at all, as well as software that is capable of controlling and instructing an entire chain of 3D printers.

“The potential exploration and other uses of self-replicating robots are significant,” commented NDSU Assistant Professor of Computer Science Jeremy Straub, who is overseeing the project. “With the use of in-situ materials, there is a potential to make numerous copies of an initial set of robots and greatly expand the work-performance capabilities of the robotic team. Replacement parts can also be produced to return damaged units to service.”

The use of "in-situ" materials is one of the key challenges that the project faces, but it is of great importance if the technology is to be used for space exploration. Many of the parts for the 3D printer, particularly electronic components, have so far been printed from metallic materials that would not be available for processing on limited-resource environments such as the surface of Mars or the Moon.

Studies are being conducted into the feasibility of processing lunar or martian regolith, the combination of different elements and compounds found on the surface of those environments, into a 3D printable material. Back here on Earth, the processing of in-situ waste materials and trash into material that could be used to build a 3D printer would allow the same self-replicating technology to be used in environments where resources are similarly scarce.

Development of a 3D printer that could print itself originally started with the RepRap project, founded by Dr. Adrian Bowyer in England in 2005. By 2008, the RepRap 1.0 “Darwin” model was capable of successfully printing over half of its total components, paving the way for full self-replication and the expanded potential of robotics that require no human intervention in order to reproduce themselves.

There is still some way to go before fully self-replicating 3D printers will be possible in the field, not in labs and industrial engineering environments, but Straub is confident about the future of the technology following the progress his team has made with its algorithm. 

“It’s been a challenging experience for the team," said Straub’s research partner, NDSU Software Engineering Ph.D. student Andrew Jones. "A lot of interdisciplinary cooperation has contributed to our progress so far.” 

Straub and Jones originally published their work in Machines, in a paper titled “Concepts for 3D Printing-Based Self-Replicating Robot Command and Coordination Techniques.’’



Posted in 3D Printer



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