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Interview to Adrian Bowyer, father of Rep Rap project
Few days ago, we had the chance to have an online chat with Adrian Bowyer. For the few that don’t know him, Adrian is a well respected academic who, also :), invented Rep Rap Project few years ago, giving desktop 3D Printing the boost that ended up in giving birth to tens of open source 3D Printers implementations: our famous 3Drag/Velleman K8200 is also based on RepRap as you know and it’s an open source 3Dprinter.
Novel work at Rep Rap eventually empowered also the creation of (now) closed source companies such as Makerbot, of which Bowyer happen to be also an early founder.
We took the chance to ask Adrian a few questions about RepRap, the present and future of 3D printing and few other topics: this interview also deals with highly discussed topics such as the future of Rep Rap community or even the frictions between the closed, patent powered 3Dprinting industry and the world of Open Source Hardware. Enjoy!
At the very start of the interview, we decided to focus on the future of open source Desktop 3D printing and Rep Rap
[SC]: First of all: we are curious to know more about the latest RepRap Ormerod. What’s special about this new model?
[AB]: It’s designed to be very quick to put together. Plus it has 32-bit ARM electronics and ethernet, so you can drive the machine from a web browser.
[SC]: Pretty straightforward indeed. I’m really interested in knowing a little about your vision on the destiny of 3d printing: will it be a mainstream industry? Will it remain a niche market, for enthusiasts and techies?
[AB]:I have no idea! Psychologists do experiments where they ask experts to predict the future, then check when the future comes around. The result (with one exception) is that experts have no better idea of the future of their area of expertise than random bods snatched off the street. The exception is people whose job it is to predict the future who get instant feedback on their accuracy – people like weather forecasters.
My best guess is that it will go very mainstream for the reasons I describe in this post. But I have no better idea than the other seven billion of us…
[SC] Could you tell us a bit about the most interesting technological innovations that you’re seeing in 3D printers market in general? I mean, special constructive choices, clever ideas, new mechanical solutions, etc.. Also would be nice to have your impression about how both laser sintering and subtractive technologies may be future important trends in open source desktop 3D printing.
[AB] I think that the big thing will be multi-material machines – machines that can put down mixtures and separate materials with diverse physical characteristics. Note that this requirement is much easier to meet with FFF and inkjet machines than it is with stereolithography or SLS. Having said that I think that SLS will have a growing role at the low end, once one can get reasonable-cost solid-state lasers that will do tens of watts.
We have subtractive technologies already of course. I personally think that combining subtractive with additive is a bit of a dead end. It reintroduces all the problems that we invented additive manufacturing to get away from…
[SC] How do you think the roadmap for a truly self-replicating reprap looks like? At what point do you think we’ll be able to replicate the metal parts, then the stepper motors, then the electronics? Does this vision make sense after all?
[AB] Ultimately yes, especially when the multi-material stuff (see above) comes through. Though I have never been too bothered about the percentage of the machine that it can make for itself. You and I can only make 60% of ourselves, after all…
(Ed: scientific explanation for those wondering about the 60%: Adrian explained me that “We are made of (and by) proteins, which in turn your ribosomes make from amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, and we can make 12 of them. The other 8 have to come from elsewhere…”
That’s a pretty interesting parallel between a man and a rep rap and it actually works in explaining: even humans need external supplies :) )
Another big boost will be soft compensation. The main reason for all the ironwork is the need for accurate linear slides and the like. But machines are increasingly compensating for out-of-true errors using their firmware. There’s no reason not to extend this to compensating for non-linearities in all sorts of things as long as a calibration object can be printed and accurately measured. And digital calipers are cheap and very accurate. This means that it would be possible to make a RepRap that printed more accurately than its parent. And it would allow all sorts of (fairly rubbish) parts to be printed that are currently imported. Their accuracy wouldn’t matter as long as the design was clever enough to make the parts rigid and repeatable in their movement, and the compensation could then be mapped and programmed.
[SC] Now focusing on industry and impacts. Let me say that we conducted a short Q&A with our community and they expressed the interest of knowing more from you about the Makerbot choice to go closed hardware, a couple of years ago. We know you also invested in Makerbot when in the funding phase and you also several time told that at the end is an evolutionary perspective that defines who wins and loses. I guess Open Source is only part of the picture. Would you share with you your thoughts about this and, in general, on the impact of choosing open versus closed development?
[AB] First my statement of interest: my wife and I put up one third of Makerbot’s initial funds, for which we got a few percent of the company. That percentage was subsequently diluted (with our permission) by newer investors. But when Makerbot merged with Stratasys we did do reasonably well out of the deal.
You are right that I take an evolutionary perspective, and I have explained that elsewhere (look here: http://lists.reprap.org/pipermail/reprap-dev-policy/2011-February/000001.html).
A thing that I don’t understand (at all) is the human desire exhibited when A passionately tells B that B should do X, and not do the Y that B is currently doing. I don’t mean the case when Y is the murdering of children and X is refraining from doing that – that I do understand. I mean the case where X and Y are opposing political parties, or the ideas that things should be open or closed source. I have views on pretty much every X and Y you can think of, and I conduct my life according to those views. But I have no impulse to persuade others that the Xs and Ys that I choose they should also choose. And I have no interest in their views about my X and Y choices. Thus I am in favour of open source, and so that’s how I do things myself. But if others differ, then so it goes.
[SC] What do you think of the recent aggressive behaviour that the giant Stratasys is having with lawsuits (see the Afinia case). Is this something we will get more familiar with in the future when interests in this market grow?
[AB] I’m sure that this diverting sideshow will continue. Governmental laws are very weak things – that is why people can make them and break them. And that is why people waste so much time debating them. There is no point in debating Ohm’s Law – it can neither be repealed, nor broken; and no amount of debate will have any effect upon it whatsoever.
A person debating the rights and wrongs of, for example, patent laws is doing the equivalent of looking for their lost contact lens under the streetlamp, rather than over in the dark where they dropped it. It won’t do any good (or harm). But it is the only thing they can do. For more on this, see: http://adrianbowyer.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/fourlevels.html
[SC] Do you foresee a particular development in specific niche markets for open source 3d printers? (eg: we are seeing a lot of experimentation for example with ceramics and in general with architectural related topics).
[AB] Certainly most of the innovation in FFF has come from the OS community. A lot of that is now being commercialised, and a lot of that commercialisation is staying OS.
[SC] What are the most important aspects that connect 3D printing and digital manufacturing to ecological sustainability in your point of view?
[AB] The fact that it allows distributed manufacturing and breaks the idea of economies of scale in the making of things. If we get things right this should lead to a radical reduction in the transport of goods.
[SC] Now, let’s talk a bit of the Rep Rap Community and about community dynamics. We have seen the ecology of rep rap go wild in terms of the number of active implementations and I think this is a huge sign of health: what do you think of Rep Rap community future in general as a Community? How can this community grow and develop a more challenging agenda and action: would it make sense?
[AB] I rather think that it has all the robustness and the agenda of a colony of microorganisms. Which is to say that it is pretty robust because it has no agenda… This is not to say that the people involved are not like-minded – they are. But their distinguishing characteristic is their desire to solve technical problems and to tell people about the answers. I suppose that that is some sort of agenda, but it is not really an agenda as a synonym for plan.
[SC] In general, our community asked us to reach out to you about tips and tricks to build an horizontal and naturally growing community such as that of Rep Rap: do you have any suggestions that is worth sharing?
[AB] Give people a platform that they want to use (and by platform here I mean both a way of sharing information, and a thing to share it about – a machine, a piece of software; whatever). And then try to be an un-proscriptive as possible about how they go about doing that.
[SC] What are other major fields of developments that you think may see the application of a similar approach to the one that Rep Rap project had to 3Dprinters? I’m thinking not just of digital fabrication realm but about manufacturing and products in general (eg: 3d scans, Human Machine Interaction, Wearable computing, etc…)
[AB] Well. The biggest has got to be genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Both those are ideal candidates for the RepRap approach – they are easy for individuals to do; they require no very fancy or expensive equipment, and the results can be profound. I’m actually rather surprised that there isn’t a bigger community of biohackers than there is.
We hope you liked this interview: it was super interesting to have the chance to interview Adrian Bowyer, as he’s the father of such an important project as Rep Rap. Which other gurus, founders and thought leaders would you like to see featured in Open Electronics?