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The RepRap Project Is Alive And Well

Elliot Williams wrote a provocative article on Hackaday which claims the original principle of the RepRap project was a failure. I think he somehow managed to totally misunderstand the original principle.

  • “The original plan was that RepRap printers would print other printers and soon everyone on Earth would have one.”
    • That wasn’t the plan. The idea of unchecked exponential growth was merely contrasted against arithmetic growth. “Self-copying rapid-prototyping machines CAN multiply exponentially and so can the goods they produce. No technology other than self-copying CAN do this, and exponential growth is the fastest that is mathematically possible.” Only a few technologies in history have become so ubiquitous that everybody on Earth has one (knives, underwear, cups, etc) so it’s silly to think that the RepRap project intended everybody to have their own universal constructor.
  • “…use whatever materials are at hand that make experimentation with new designs as easy as possible, including embracing cheap mass-produced machines as a first step.”
    • From the source Elliot cited, Dr. Bowyer originally said, “All the hardware of RepRap has been designed either to be rapid prototyped or to be readily available and cheap. Indeed the majority of the parts that it does not make for itself can be got from a good ironmonger.” So, yeah, that’s exactly the point. One of the (if not the) most successful business based on the RepRap project, Lulzbot, uses rapid-prototype-able parts and mass produced parts in synergy.
  • “In insisting on self-reliance, Bowyer misunderstood the ecology of the RepRap. Do bees produce everything they need to survive? No, the flowers help them out a lot.
    • The Point probably made a whooshing sound as it went over Elliot’s head. In the very source he cited (an early introduction to the RepRap concept) Bowyer said “Suppose, to be specific, that we were to make a universal constructor that could manufacture its component parts, but that left their assembly to people…The universal constructor would be the flowers, the goods would be the nectar, and the people would take the role of insects…it can self-replicate with the symbiotic assistance of a person.” So, you know, right from the beginning Bowyer assumed the printers would form a symbiotic relationship with other organisms.
  • “There’s just no money in printing RepRap parts.”
    • This, also, is not news. It was predicted back at the beginning of the project in the source Elliot’s citing. Dr. Bowyer, “It is in everyone’s interest to have a universal constructor, it is in no company’s interest to make and to sell one, because one is all they would sell.” He knew that the cost would be driven down.
  • “All of these [current 3D printers] are awesome, but none of them are replicating to any serious degree, even the ones that could in principle.”
    • Again, even back at the very beginning of the project, when Dr. Bowyer said it would be “hubris” to imagine RepRap changing the world, he knew designs would change quickly. “Anything that can copy itself immediately and inescapably becomes subject to Darwinian selection, but RepRap has one important difference from natural organisms: in nature, mutations are random, and only a tiny fraction are improvements; but with RepRap, every mutation is a product of the analytical thought of its users. This means that the rate of improvement should be very rapid, at least at the start; it is more analogous to selective breeding.” What’s happening isn’t RepRap becoming not-an-organism, it’s humans training RepRaps to be better symbiotic organisms.

It’s interesting that Elliot can be so close the subject, and so knowledgeable about it, and come away with conclusions that seem obviously wrong (to me). For example, I interpret events like Dr. Bowyer shutting down RepRapPro as proof that the RepRap project is working. The market for RepRaps, and RepRap parts, is so active that there’s no reason for Dr. Bowyer to keep his original store open.

Actually, what’s most interesting about Elliot’s article is that the phrase “RepStrap” doesn’t show up once. The only place it appears on the page is in one of Elliot’s own comments. In the community, a RepStrap simply means a 3D printer that isn’t self-reproducing. Usually it’s applied to barely adequate printers cobbled together from free parts. I think my favorite is this one that’s mostly held together with hot glue. However, a fundamental principle of the RepRap project is that EVERY other printer is a RepStrap. You can make a RepRap on any printer (including a RepRap) but you can’t make any other printer on a printer.

When Elliot says, “One of the important early ideals of the RepRap movement – universal replication and free printers for everyone – was pretty much a failure,” all I hear is a description of the Trough of Disillusionment. People who didn’t quite get the point got excited, their imagination raced ahead of the technology, and then they got disappointed.

Gartner's Trough of Disillusionment from 2015
Gartner Trough of Disillusionment for 2015. Notice how consumer 3D printing is poised to be firmly in the trough in 2016, right when Elliot’s article was posted (2 March 2016).

In contrast to Elliot’s position that “the founding replication idea behind RepRap has been a failure” I’d say that the founding idea literally cannot possibly fail. Because RepRap is an organism, albeit an artificial one, it can only go extinct or evolve. Since it’s clearly not extinct, that means it’s evolving.

To say that “the utopian story of the replication-driven end to scarcity was useful or necessary in attracting people to the project in its early days” is to miss the point by a huge margin. The only aspect of the RepRap project that was necessary in the early days was to demonstrate it and open source the designs, both of which happened. The bit about affecting scarcity was speculation on the long-term results. Speculation which has plenty of time to work itself out.

What I find interesting is how many people, even people who are close to the project, misunderstand the implications of Wealth Without Money. It’s going to be hard to actually track this change as it happens because it’s measured in the absence of things to measure. Being wealthy, without having money, means wealth is measured in something other than money. Wealth without money means that you can get what you need without exchanging money for it. I’m going to write a post on just this topic soon.

Published inopen source hardwarephilosophyRepRap

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