Can you 3D print a 3D printer?
The incredible technical potential of 3D printers has garnered significant attention, and some makers have even attempted to create self-replicating machines. If you are interested in learning about what is required—and what can be done—with 3D printed 3D printers, read on.
Is it possible to use a 3D printer to print the components required to assemble your own? Many makers have considered this, and a few have even made their own printers. New 3D printing technology has allowed for smaller scale industrial groups and some consumers to print high-quality, industrial grade components for machines. This has led to a surge in 3D printed machine parts that can be used to modify existing printers or create entirely new machines.
It should be noted that because of the mechanical characteristics of thermoplastic layer deposition printing, makers have only been able to make their own 3D printers for plastics, not metals, resin, or ceramics.
How does it work?
Technically, a 3D printer is no different than any other simple machine. If you can design housing for power, filament heating, extrusion, and build plate components and you have the technical knowledge required to assemble them effectively, you can build your own 3D printer. Many people have hosted plans and CAD files online, but designs can be modified for improved effectiveness or personalization. Because of the rigorous technical requirements necessary to establish straight axis movement and ensure calibration, each piece will need to be designed and printed with the utmost consideration to how each component fits together.
Why should you build a 3D printed 3D printer?
Tweaking, printing, assembling, and using your own 3D printer can be a great way to learn more about how 3D printers work and to fine-tune your existing machine to do exactly what you want. It can also be an excellent introduction into 3D printer repairs owing to the deep, “under the hood” knowledge required to assemble a working printer from scratch.
If you find that you can design and print a working machine, you can even work more on your design skills and try your hand at printing a fully customized machine.
The first self-replicating 3D printer
Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath, began working on self-replicating 3D printing research in 2005 through the RepRap project. His first functional machine was called the RepRap “Darwin” and was built using 50% of self-replicated parts.
The 3D printed printers made by the RepRap project are FDM printers that utilize as many plastic components as possible. Because of their limited use of metal components, layer-deposition technology, and smaller size (typically no larger than the average desktop 3D printer), the potential applicability of such 3D printed printers remains limited to hobbyist consumer uses.
It is important to note that these prints cannot entirely print themselves. Certain electronic and metal components are required; although some metal components can be made using a 3D printer, this technology is usually not accessible to the average 3D print maker. Instead, most parts of the printer are printed using FDM, and necessary electrical and metal components are assembled at the final stage.
Improving existing 3D printers
The RepRap project is open-source and encourages other makers to engage with their work. All 3D models designed and used by the RepRap project are available online, and there have been many iterations of this printable 3D printer from various manufacturing groups. The Prusa i3, fan-favorite printer, was born of these improvements. In 2012, Josef Prusa designed this printer from existing plans, and it has since become one of the most well-known and acclaimed 3D printers on the market with its follow-up models, the MK2 and MK2S. Designed from open-source files, the Prusa i3 costs less than its competition, is easy to construct and modify, and facilitates simple repairs.
The future of self-replicating 3D printers
Thus far, self-replicating 3D printers have been the subject of significant hobbyist interest because, well, making your own 3D printer is cool.
The scope of this technology far exceeds simple at-home printer customization. Researchers are currently attempting to perfect the manufacture and assembly of 3D printers from 3D printed parts for applications in space. The general notion is that a self-replicating 3D printer would be sent on a lunar mission to facilitate the production of base materials, satellites, and repair components. Researchers from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa are currently trying to use self-replicating printers to aid in the development of lunar base building.
The self-replicating printer intended for use on lunar missions prints a mix of materials such as plastic and iron in varying proportions according to the specifications of the desired part. Currently, the motor is the most challenging element of a DIY 3D printer. However, the project intending to put self-replicating machines on the moon has nearly achieved the creation of a fully functional motor using a material similar to that which can be extracted on the moon’s surface, allowing for a complete self-replication system.
As noted above, electronics and metal components are the major barriers to 3D printer self-replication. For consumers, these issues cannot be overcome using their home desktop printer. However, this dedicated team of researchers has hope that machine similar to 3D printers can be used to “print” and cut out electronic materials. While we are still very far from having an all-in-one 3D printer that can make these components, it may be possible to have a few machines working in tandem to produce everything required to assemble specialty printers.
Where to start
Unless you already work with a university research group and want to get started on designing 3D printers for the moon, your best bet is to focus on getting familiar with your own printer. We strongly encourage makers interested in printing their own 3D printer to take some time to read up on all the basics of 3D printing. Knowing how it works, the essential machine components, and how they fit together is essential for getting ready to assemble your own printer. RepRap has a wealth of open-source resources, including a comprehensive explanation about how each piece fits together, as well as beginner’s guides and other helpful resources.