Self-Copying Factories

Most important trends that change our world do not make the news.  Exhibit A:

Reprap RepRap is short for Replicating Rapid-prototyper. It is the practical self-copying 3D printer shown on the right – a self-replicating machine. This 3D printer builds the component up in layers of plastic. This technology already exists, but the cheapest commercial machine would cost you about 30,000 Euro. And it isn’t even designed so that it can make itself. So what the RepRap team are doing is to develop and to give away the designs for a much cheaper machine with the novel capability of being able to self-copy (material costs will be about 400 Euro). … We are distributing the RepRap machine at no cost to everyone under the GNU General Public Licence. … We hope to announce self-replication in 2008, though the machine that will do it – RepRap Version 1.0 “Darwin” – can be built now.


There are at least seven copies of the RepRap machine in the world that Olliver knows about.

Exhibit B is even more dramatic, if you know what you are seeing:

This paper presents the first theoretical quantitative systems level study of a complete suite of reaction pathways for scanning-probe based ultrahigh-vacuum diamond mechanosynthesis (DMS). A minimal toolset is proposed for positionally controlled DMS consisting of three primary tools … and six auxiliary tools … Our description of this toolset, the first to exhibit 100% process closure, explicitly specifies all reaction steps and reaction pathologies, also for the first time. The toolset employs three element types …  and requires inputs of four feedstock molecules … The 9-tooltype toolset can, using only these simple bulk-produced chemical inputs: (1) fabricate all nine tooltypes, including their adamantane handle structures and reactive tool intermediates, starting from a flat passivated diamond surface or an adamantane seed structure; (2) recharge all nine tooltypes after use; and (3) build both clean and hydrogenated molecularly-precise unstrained cubic diamond … and hexagonal diamond surfaces of process-unlimited size … Reaction pathways and transition geometries involving 1620 tooltip/workpiece structures were analyzed … to compile 65 Reaction Sequences comprised of 328 reaction steps, 354 unique pathological side reactions and 1321 reported DFT energies. The reactions should exhibit high reliability at 80 K.   

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  • mitchell porter

    I’m with you on this one being a world-changer. It brings all the economic changes that have hit distributors of information goods within range of those who ship material things as well. There’s already an online marketplace for product blueprints (Ponoko), and RepRap and Ponoko know about each other. Throw in recycling of used-up artefacts for feedstock, and you have a whole new sort of industrial base. Bruce Sterling has a nice little short story about how things could work out, and I suspect his next novel is going to fit it into his four economic worlds idea.

    As for diamondoid mechanosynthesis, I always think of aerovores when I read about that. “Even more dramatic”, indeed!

  • scott clark

    So when do we buy all the put options on jewelry stores and diamond mining companys and such?

  • david curran

    “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.”

    Artificial diamonds have been coming downt he track for a while. Rapid prototypers that can duplicate themselves are insanely cool but only nerd sites are talking about them (until this one). What is going to change the world away fromt he news? My guess is metallic hydrogen.

  • Hrmm?

    Also, this:

    Robot re-assembles itself.

    can grey goo be far behind? =)

  • Andy Wood
  • michael webster

    Alright, I will bite. I have no idea what exhibit b is talking about.

  • Tom McCabe

    “Alright, I will bite. I have no idea what exhibit b is talking about.”

    It’s a complete method, described in detail, for making diamond-based tools on a molecular level.

    “It is the practical self-copying 3D printer shown on the right – a self-replicating machine.”

    The machine shown on the right is NOT self-replicating, and quite frankly, I think it’s unethical for the RepRap team to describe it as such. It can make most of the plastic components, but it can’t make any of the electronics, and it can’t assemble itself.

  • Allison

    Okay. But let’s not combine this with neural nets, hm? I’ve been watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica of late.

  • Michael Bone

    From what I gathered, correct me if I am wrong, exhibit B is a self-replicating toolset
    capable of making diamond and graphene sheets and tubes (nanotubes).

    This may be a key component in the future of computer manufacturing.

  • Tim Tyler

    Future computers are more likely to be built by self-assembly processes analogous to crystalisation. Poking atoms into place one at a time using a pointy tool would be a prohibitively expensive manufacturing technique.

  • Caledonian

    It’s fundamentally harder to make a large, self-replicating machine than a small one. Individual molecules have far fewer degrees of freedom than macroscale objects do – much greater precision is needed when crafting a gear, even a microscopic one, than a protein.

    I would so go far as to speculate that we’ll see true artificial (biochemical) life long before we’ll have large, self-replicating factories. The need to impose constraints is less at the scale of cells.

  • nick

    Neither of these are anywhere close to being self-replicating. Tom explained why RepRap is not. His explanation also applies to the diamond mechanosynthesis: making a scanning probe requires far more than diamond, it requires sophisticated electronics made in factories weighing collectively trillions of tonnes.

    Another problem is that, more than twenty years after it was theorized, and despite millions of dollars of R&D funding trying to accomplish it, diamondoid mechanosynthesis has not been accomplished. It has only been theorized under some dubious Newtonian simplifications of quantum mechanics. Many chemists, such Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley, think it won’t work.

  • Tim Tyler

    Smalley’s position does not seem credible:

    Drexler and Smalley make the case for and against ‘molecular assemblers’

    Debate About Assemblers — Smalley Rebuttal

    “How is it possible that an otherwise respectable publication would publish these attacks? None of their technical criticisms of molecular assemblers has withstood scrutiny — all have fallen by the wayside when it became obvious that they were incorrect.”

  • Martin

    Full text available for $410. That blows my mind.

    Was any part of that research done with government grants? Doesn’t the public have a right to see what they are paying for?

  • General Fabb

    If you’re interested in following the news on 3D Printing and digital fabrication, you might consider reading our blog at Fabbaloo or

  • Jonathan El-Bizri

    “Future computers are more likely to be built by self-assembly processes analogous to crystalisation. Poking atoms into place one at a time using a pointy tool would be a prohibitively expensive manufacturing technique.”

    Actually, no. At that size (and consequently required energy level), with tools that can self-replicate, and multitudes of them can work on an assembly at once, it becomes an unbelievably cheap manufacturing technique.

  • Ben Rayfield

    On tv recently, there was a Naked Science episode called “Super Diamonds” which said:
    1 in 100000 diamonds are blue, like the “Hope Diamond”, because they contain certain non-carbon atoms.
    Blue diamonds glow for a few seconds after all lights are turned off. [I think that means the light echos in it, and given the high speed of light, staying in the same cubic inch for a few seconds is a lot of echoing]
    Some asteroids are made of many connected diamonds containing many big and small empty spaces, and they are stronger than perfect carbon crystals (which can be split on a plane), and they are black because they are like a maze which light can rarely find its way into or out of.
    Diamond-like structures can replace silicon circuits, and that all parts of a cell-phone could be made that way.

    My following prediction is extremely speculative and probably would not work, but a similar design may work. Current diamond research does not have the precision for it, and they create their diamonds by smashing layers of carbon together.

    I predict that if the 3 degrees Kelvin background radiation can be blocked or very much reduced, and you can connect many atoms with single atom precision, then the following can be built:

    A group of connected atoms (mostly carbon), contained in a large maze-like shield with at least 1 hole thats 1 atom wide that has a straight tunnel of carbon.
    That tunnel allows only 1 type of laser light to enter.
    That tunnel will lead to a battery-like group of atoms where the light bounces around while it waits for enough photons to be there (I dont know exactly how).
    When enough photons are there, they would somehow be let out in the same laser pattern, pointing at a specific atom in a smaller structure floating inside the shell.
    Position of the floating structure would be maintained by throwing photons in the opposite direction to move, and out a hole in the shell (Which would require 1-way tunnels).
    That smaller structure has turing-machine parts and quantum-computer parts, and directs the light to detach atoms from specific known locations and attach them into other locations which are calculated, using the extremely precise single photon laser.
    It can self replicate within the large shell, limited to the number of atoms inside the large shell.
    At least 2 of the battery-like things are needed, paired on opposite sides of the floating structures, so constant position can be maintained.

    A more practical design is for it not to build things and only use it as a quantum computer that takes laser inputs and gives laser outputs.