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Proponents Say it's the Next Step in Rapid Prototyping: Systems that Reproduce their Own Kind and Evolve.

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Mechanical Engineering 128(07), 38-40 (Jul 01, 2006) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2006-JUL-3

A research group at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, is at work on a scheme to devise robots that would evolve both their electronic brains and their bodies to meet each user's prescribed needs. The robots would then build themselves by a rapid production method like 3D printing or rapid prototyping, a method of manufacturing objects, usually by depositing and curing successive layers of material. According to the researchers, the machines would not have to be built on an assembly line and thus have the potential to replicate exponentially, bringing down their production costs and making them more readily available. The research program at Brandeis is called the Genetically Organized Lifelike Electro Mechanic, or Golem, Project. A robot in the Golem Project starts out as a computer program. The software iterates its mechanism through matching parts, looking for the combination that will allow the robot to best move on its own for its intended application {CE: Please check whether this edit suits well for this sentence.}. The successful matches continue to mutate and improve. The computer search can be compared roughly to the process of natural selection.

When it first came on the scene some 10 years ago, the ability to print your digital design in three dimensions seemed like a technology straight from the pages of science fiction. The shape stored in your computer assembled itself from a claylike material right before your eyes and you could hold that design in your hand—often that same day.

Now, efforts are under way that will try to take the technology a significant step farther.

A research group at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is at work on a scheme to devise robots that would evolve both their electronic brains and their bodies to meet each user’s prescribed needs. The robots would then build themselves by a rapid production method similar to 3-D printing or rapid prototyping, a method of manufacturing objects, usually by depositing and curing successive layers of material.

There is also Adrian Bowyer. A senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath in England, he and his team have given a preliminary demonstration of RepRap, a device that they hope will one day use 3-D printing to replicate itself and manufacture a variety of consumer products. According to Bowyer, RepRap is an attempt to democratize the manufacturing process by bringing an easy and inexpensive means of production to individuals and to developing countries.

These machines are intended to reproduce themselves, and that is a characteristic they would share with animals and plants. The idea is hardly foreign to technology. As Bowyer pointed out, “After all, our oldest technology— agriculture—deals entirely with self-replicating objects and with selective breeding.”

Prototype parts of this lawn sprinkler are produced by a method called 3-D printing through which engineers can literally print a CAD design.

Grahic Jump LocationPrototype parts of this lawn sprinkler are produced by a method called 3-D printing through which engineers can literally print a CAD design.

According to the researchers, the machines won’t have to be built on an assembly line and thus have the potential to replicate exponentially, bringing down their production costs and making them more readily available.

The program at Brandeis is under the lead of a computer science professor, Jordan Pollack. The research program is called the Genetically Organized Lifelike Electro Mechanic, or Golem, Project. The original golem is an automaton of Jewish folklore.

Pollack is trying to use rapid prototyping technology that will someday build a robot that can create itself.

“What I’ve been interested in is how do we get to the robotics age we’ve been waiting for now for many years,” Pollack said.

That promised age, in which cheaply produced robots perform tasks, has been delayed by economic factors, Pollack claims. Robots are still designed laboriously and constructed by teams of human engineers.

“That’s why we don’t have a robotics industry, other than pick-and-place, where you have to sell a million robots to justify production,” Pollack said. “Most of the time, engineering and design produces something to be mass produced and manufactured at the cost of human creative talent and labor, which can be amortized over many copies of something for sale.”

That scenario doesn’t hold true for robotics, he added. The number of robots that can be sold is limited. To justify their costs, mass-produced robots are really feasible only for toys, weapons, and oft-used machines.

“We have to get the design and manufacturing costs down to where one or two copies of a robot can make a return on investment,” Pollack said.

But Pollack and his team say they have a way to make robots more affordable and, at the same time, to custom- tailor them to particular applications.

A robot in the Golem Project starts out as a computer program. This program contains the designs for the plastic pipes, joints, motors, and electronic circuits that will eventually become the robot. The computer also is programmed to understand the physics of movement.

The software cycles through matching parts, looking for the combination that will allow the robot to best move on its own for its intended application. The successful matches continue to mutate and improve. The computer search can be compared roughly to the process of natural selection.

Once evolved, the robots build themselves using the same methods that 3-D printers use to construct a prototype from a digital model. For this operation, Pollack and his team use rapid manufacturing technology from Stratasys Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn.

Researchers have built robots like this one that evolve from software and print themselves in 3-D.

Grahic Jump LocationResearchers have built robots like this one that evolve from software and print themselves in 3-D.

Bowyer at the University of Bath said he has always believed that taking 3-D printing to its logical conclusion—that is, creating a printer that can print its own double—could revolutionize the marketplace. Now he’d like a chance to prove that.

Bowyer said RepRap will be a self-replicating printer that can make a 3-D part from any digital model.

“If it could only make copies of itself, it’d just be an interesting curiosity, of course,” Bowyer said. “But we intend it to also be able to manufacture a wide range of consumer goods, from coat hooks to MP3 players.”

He added that, because RepRap will be able to create copies of itself, it will essentially give the means of production to the masses. RepRap, which was discussed in an article in the March issue, “The Free Range,” is offered on an open-source basis through the World Wide Web, at reprap.org.

The University of Bath printer is still in the early stages of development. Bowyer s team is not yet two years into the four-year development project. The group expects to have the first demonstration machine ready in about a year, although that model won’t be able to print its own electrical circuits, which are so vital to the machine’s functioning. Circuit-printing capability should be included by the time the project is complete, Bowyer said.

If it is to print copies of itself, the little machine can’t rely on a laser to fuse layers—as the laser can’t be copied— a problem Bowyer has yet to address. Material choice is also an issue. The parts must be made of a sturdy material yet one simple enough to be fabricated by the small machine, Bowyer said.

To further borrow an analogy from the natural world, Bowyer expects the machine to evolve, much as plants and animals do, over time. He’ll make the software behind the self-replicator open source for that reason—so that it, too, can evolve and become more user-friendly. He expects that, as more and more people download the freely available software and tinker with it, making necessary improvements, they drive software development.

Most 3-D parts, preliminary parts, or prototypes, like this one, can be printed in less than a day on a machine that attaches to a desktop computer.

Grahic Jump LocationMost 3-D parts, preliminary parts, or prototypes, like this one, can be printed in less than a day on a machine that attaches to a desktop computer.

Bowyer expects the printer to eventually retail for $500, including a few components commonly available that would have to be purchased separately. The printer would be affordable even in the developing world. For the professor, RepRap holds out hope that impoverished people can at least get a foothold on the manufacturing ladder.

“Indeed, in my more fanciful moments, I like to imagine it ultimately making money itself redundant,” Bowyer said. “But I rather think that’s unlikely.”

Consultant Terry Wohlers said that RepRap's realization is still decades away. He follows the rapid prototyping industry closely as head of the rapid prototyping consulting firm Wohlers Associates of Fort Collins, Colo.

"The way it was presented initially is that it can build itself- electronics, circuit boards, everything," Wohlers said. "But I had an extensive e-mail conversation with the creator, and we're really talking about a plastic shell; the standard parts would still be bought and assembled."

As the device stands currently, Wohlers said, users who are seeking to print in three dimensions could purchase the RepRap's components separately and assemble them for much less than it would cost to have the replica tor print a copy of itself.

"Still, it's an interesting concept, and maybe in 20 to 50 years we'll have something like that," he said.

If the Rep Rap were to mimic the surge in popularity 3-D printers have seen since their introduction, there'd be self-replicating printers in high schools in the nottoo- distant future.

"The companies initially buying these machines were Fortune 500 companies or service providers that served large groups of people," Wohlers said. "Whereas now we're seeing companies that you and I have never heard of with them. And a lot of schools and high schools." The 3-D printing industry saw revenues double in 2004 , while unit sales grew by 91 percent, Wohlers said.

Companies like Z-Corp. of Burlington, Mass., which sells 3-D printers, attributed increased sales to printer price, which has dropped by more than half in five years, and to better resolution and quality. A unit that sold for $55,000 in 2000 now goes for around $20,000, said Tom Clay, the company's chief executive officer.

"The 3 -D printing industry has grown quickly in the past decade , Now researchers are trying to take the technology several steps farther- like designing a printer that prints itself."

"The customer wants the part to look exactly as it does in their mind's eye," Clay said. "It's a constant battle for us to make the part look like that and to factor in ease of use. That's an important factor."

Previously, to use Or,le of the expensive printers, customers needed a special room with a controlled environment and a dedicated operator. No more, Clay said. "Now you can buy a small printer and generally plug it into a work station," he said.

But with all this talk of evolving machines that can replicate themselves aren't we blatantly overlooking another obvious sci-fi scenario? Robots run amok? Terrorizing the very humans who started them on their path of mad spawning?

If you consider it logically, Pollack said, such a scene couldn't happen without a great deal of funding.

"I make fun of the fear of out-of-control robotics," he said. "If you thought about it, you'd need a corporation with the resources of Exxon for energy, of General Motors for manufacturing, of Sony for electronics, and of Windows for software.

"And Microsoft is not going to let robots control that much software property any time soon," he added.

Of course, neither the self-replicating printer, nor the Golem robots will come to fruition any time soon. Still, Pollack and Bowyer say we can look one day for such means of manufacturing to be as commonplace, as nonscifi, as 3-D printing has become today.

Copyright © 2006 by ASME
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