KM has received the kind assistance of Adrian Bowyer as we explore the exciting but uncharted territory of 3D printing futures. Adrian is the celebrated mathematician and inventor who brought the RepRap to the world. You can read Adrian's blog here. BONUS: Read the full interview for a DIY challenge from Adrian!
KM Q&A! Bot: Adrian, thanks for joining us. As the inventor of the RepRap, did you imagine 3D printing would make the impact it has?
Adrian Bowyer: I thought it probable. Before RepRap, when my university bought two 3D printers at my request and I started to use them, I immediately realized that they were a transformative technology. They just make it so easy to manufacture things.
QA: In your mind, what is the future of 3D modeling and fabrication?
AB: Uncertain. But that is not a special aspect of 3D modeling and fabrication, nor of my knowledge of its future. The future of almost everything is uncertain. Repeated studies have shown that people who are specialists in an area (anything from politics through finance to engineering) are no better at predicting the future of their speciality than tossing a coin. The only people who's view on the future should be listened to are those who make large numbers of predictions and who get instant feedback on their accuracy; people like weather forecasters and surgeons. And they should only be believed when they are talking about their area of specialist prediction.
I know a lot about 3D modeling and fabrication. But if you ask me about their future you will get an answer that is no better than a random guess. But it will be no worse than any other expert's random guess :-)
QA: We recently held an Intro to 3D Printing 101 class at Knox Makers. Attendees had questions about the 3D printers' limitations, and future developments. One example is that we discussed sensors for detecting belt slippage. What are the most important areas to you that can be improved in future RepRap models and modifications?
AB: To the specific point for a moment: RepRap uses toothed belts and pulleys that can't slip.
But to the more general question: I think that the two most important areas for RepRap development are the use of multi-materials - especially materials with radically different physical properties - and improving the design to make RepRap as easy as possible to assemble.
The multi-materials will allow a greater proportion of the machine to be printed by itself.
And the ease of assembly will assist its reproduction and spread because more people will be able to make RepRaps more quickly.
QA: We also discussed techniques for addressing overhang limitations in 3D printers such as the RepRap. What are the next big steps in 3D printing related to overhang limitations?
AB: Well - like all 3D printers RepRap uses support material for overhangs, and this is pretty successful. And a soluble support will be one of the things that comes out of the multi-materials that I mentioned above.
QA: What would an ideal 3D printer of the future be capable of, and do you think we are working towards that end?
AB: There is no ideal 3D printer, just as there is no ideal jellyfish. Different ones will fill different needs (just as different jellyfish fill different ecological niches).
We are splitting the species of RepRaps into many branches, each of which (if it is successful and doesn't go extinct) will fill different requirements.
A RepRap that can make a house is unlikely also to be able to make a micro-channel fluidic valve 5mm across.
QA: Who are your heroes from history?
AB: Darwin. Shakespeare. Feynman. Beethoven. Newton*. Chopin. Velásquez. I could go on :-)
*Not a whole hero, as he was - by all accounts - a rather unpleasant and vindictive man. But he did understand how it all works.
QA: Modern art increasingly offers examples of beauty in math. Do you have any favorite mathematical artists, artistic mathematicians, or mathematical art forms?
AB: I'm quite fond of Escher. But he suffers from the same problem as Beethoven (see above...). He is so good, and his work has consequently achieved such wide currency, that it seems clichéd. It is not, of course. But it is impossible for anyone to divorce their perceptions of a work of art from the number of times that they have already seen or heard it, or seen or heard things based upon it.
QA: How do you feel about 3D printing and the future of education?
AB: I hope I have this correctly attributed: Neil Gershenfeld says that all our troubles stem from the Renaissance. For it was then that the idea grew up that people who think about ideas should not also make things. And vice versa.
The great thing about 3D printing is that it allows anyone (particularly thoughtful children) to make things.
The world would be an unimaginably better place if everyone who thought also made.
QA: Do you have any advice for 3D innovators?
AB: Go open source. It's the correct thing to do. But - much more importantly - you'll have a lot more fun.
QA: Any closing thoughts?
AB: Twenty years ago, when my daughter was a small child, I said to her, "I expect that I shall live to see a unicorn, and that you will live to see a dragon." The progress of genetic engineering has not led me to revise that toss-of-a-coin-accurate prediction.
Self-replicating engineering will transform human society, the Earth, and ultimately everything. I hope that I live to see it well on its way.
Artificial self-replication is the really important thing. 3D printing is merely the way that we are currently starting to do it.
QA: We are indebted to you for your time, Mr. Bowyer. As a last request, can you issue our readers a simple DIY challenge of your choosing, related to 3D printing and math?
AB: A 3D-printed mechanical calculator would be fun. (Of course there may already be one on Thingiverse - I haven't looked.)