We’ve been seeing this question asked a few times. “Can you 3D print a 3D printer” sounds like a stupid question, but, just as in everything else, there are no stupid questions. We’d all like to save a little money by reproducing 3D printers for ourselves! So, this blog post will be investigating whether or not you can indeed 3D print a 3D printer.
What’s the short answer?
Well, the answer as to whether you can 3D print a 3D printer is technically yes but actually no. How does that work, I hear you ask? Well, unsurprisingly, you’re not the first person to ask this question in the 3D printing community. If the name Adrian Bowyer means anything to you, you’ll know where this is heading.
Bowyer is an engineer and mathematician who used to work at the University of Bath, spending his whole teaching career there. He had a fairly distinguished career both in mathematics and in engineering. But his most relevant work, at least in terms of 3D printing, is the RepRap project.
What is RepRap?
RepRap is a project started at the University of Bath by Bowyer. RepRap is short for replicating rapid prototyper. It began in 2005 with one ambitious end – to create a self-replicating 3D printer. By March 2008, “Darwin”, the first RepRap printer, had printed at least one of over half of its rapid-prototyped parts, meaning over half of these parts could be replaced by second-generation parts. A 3D printer could now print just under half of all its constituent parts.
The second generation RepRap printer, “Mendel”, launched in 2009. The third-generation printer “Huxley” was to follow less than a year later – it was a miniature of Mendel.
These printers are all accessible via open source. A key aim of the project was to make 3D printing into a mainstream, accessible and relatively cheap production method through self-reproducing 3D printers. The RepRap printer was intended to evolve as it reproduced, evolving closer and closer to the perfect 3D printer.
So What Happened?
If that’s the case, then why don’t we have free, perfect open-source 3D printers today? What happened to RepRap? Well, the market happened. The one UK commercial arm of RepRap, RepRapPro, ceased trading in early 2016 due to the proliferation of low-cost 3D printers in the market and their inability to expand out of that market. But its success stories live on today, through the Prusa i3, as well as the many RepRap printers still in existence.
Despite this, you can’t really fully 3D print a 3D printer. While RepRap managed to 3D print all its rapidly-prototyped parts, there are still very many parts that RepRap couldn’t print, and hasn’t managed to yet. Indeed, it didn’t manage to print 52% of its own parts (of course, that’s not to diminish the success of an almost half self-reproducing 3D printer). The closest design yet to a fully 3D printed 3D printer is the Hangprinter, a descendent of the RepRap printers, which has a unique frameless design and can be constructed for the affordable sum of $250 (£184.67). But even then, there are parts within that that cannot be 3D printed.
So, that’s why you can’t really 3D print a 3D printer. While you can definitely 3D print about half of a 3D printer, we’re not at the stage yet where they are fully self-reproducing. We await that day with anticipation!