Self-Replicating Robots — Sort Of

When I bought my 3D printer, I thought that having one on my desk would help me stay abreast of what’s happening in the field. Well, I was wrong. True, I can get hands-on experience with different rendering/extrusion/finishing programs and devices, but the field is just exploding too rapidly for me to follow everything and get anything else done.

In the medical arena, 3D printer robots are being used to create cranial implants, replacements, temporary teeth, artificial limbs, and orthodontics. Then, there’s the whole world of medical 3D scanning, where robots are used to create scans for better fitting hearing aids, replacement teeth, and models to preview the results of reconstructive surgery.

On the fun front, self-replication has had a boost from announcements and demonstrations of affordable desktop 3D scanners. If you’re a wiz at using a 3D authoring program, then you may not need a scanner. However, let’s say a support on your robotics platform is cracked and needs to be replaced. What could be easier than simply scanning the support, using a touch-up tool to remove the crack in the digital image, and then sending the file to your 3D printer.

Still don’t have a 3D printer on your desk? It’s becoming less of an issue, thanks to increased availability of web-based 3D printing services. If you’ve ever designed a printed circuit board and ordered the finished board from one of the online services, then you’ll be at home having your 3D printing outsourced. I’m waiting for my local Kinko’s to offer 3D printing along with their 2D printing service.

At home, printing isn’t for everyone, but more activity in 3D printing makes it better for everyone. An increase in the popularity of 3D printing will attract software and hardware developers to the space. There will eventually be an ‘app for that.

Back to self-replicating robots, what can the current generation of affordable robotic extruders do? Quite a bit. Search for “robot” on Thingiverse (http://www.thingiverse.com) — the 3D image repository — and you’ll find 3D files to create everything from quadcopters, biped walkers, and robot arms to multi-legged insectoid robots. Just add electronics, batteries, and a few nuts and bolts, and after extruding a few spools of PLA or ABS plastic, you’ll have an army of robots.

Not quite self-replicating, but in this scenario, a robot is semiautonomously replicating another robot. Sort of like Escher’s Drawing Hands, where one hand is sketching the other. SV


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