An exciting project that I am involved with demanded a trip down to the University of Bath to conduct an interview with Dr Adrian Bowyer, who conceived the RepRap project back in 2004 and initiated it the subsequent year. This is a man whose work and opinions I have respected for many years as he has gone about the business of evolving his vision for a self-replicating 3D printer. We have communicated in various forms during those years and, as might be expected, he was a contributor to the TCT magazine during my tenure there. Indeed, it was weirdly satisfying that as I carried out some research prior to the interview, Google actually took me to an article that I wrote in 2006 for TCT. Adrian's quote in the article was, as he said yesterday, "typically me" — articulate, forthright and well-informed. I also owe Adrian thanks for introducing me to the wonderful word: mellifluous.
However, we had never met in person, for one reason or another, and yesterday way exceeded any expectations I held beforehand.
In between filming we were able to chat at ease, and I was allowed to poke around the RepRap lab at the University and talk to some of Adrian's researchers and students. Well, I was in my element, and the jaw dropping moment came when I picked up the following piece:
Chatting away to Adrian and his PhD researcher Rhys Jones (@rhysoj on twitter), I wasn't immediately aware of what I was holding, and then it sank in. I asked the obvious question, [add slightly incredulous tone] "Are you printing metal?" The affirmative response from Rhys, who is leading the research into this, came with a combination of slight amusement and typical self-deprecation. That is exactly what they are doing. Despite the fact that it is still quite 'crude' - his word not mine - the fact that it is possible at all on a RepRap machine is a testament to just how far the boundaries are being pushed towards the reality of personal manufacturing. Rhys showed me how they are creating the low-melting point alloy, and it is currently labour intensive, with moderate results. But it's getting very interesting and he promised more "fun" things in the not too distant future. These will be posted here in due course.
The other area where the research at Bath is pushing boundaries is that of colour. An issue that I asked about as I was fiddling with this 3D printed part:
This is a typical RepRap style multi-colour part produced from using two different spools of coloured filament material through different print heads. Nothing startling there, but research being conducted by Myles Corbett, a final year project student under Adrian's tutorage, is looking into a 5-drive RepRap model that will result in a CMYK palette + white, fusing the colours precisely as they are printed. Anyone that works in graphic design or publishing will be aware of just how many colour options are available on a CMYK palette; 3D printing demands a white input to mimic the white paper onto which 2D CMYK colours are printed. For anyone not familiar with this, think endless colour possibilities.
As we stood there discussing those very possibilities, one of them proposed making it 6 drives and including translucent PLA. It was deemed a good idea - and further research was to go in that direction. And that's exactly how it gets done. So simple, so mind blowing.
Again, some success to date with the colour fusing, as documented on the RepRap Blog, but which of you would bet against them? I know I wouldn't.
The other issue that I discussed with Adrian, off camera, was that of when and how nano materials and 3D printing would and could merge. As I put forward my views, Adrian totally agreed with me, which, as he pointed out, doesn't mean we are both right; regardless, it was a satisfying moment.
For anyone that didn't see my tweet on this last week, this video link is a vision of the future that I have bought into, or something like it.
Adrian did also confirm to me that he is retiring from the University at the end of this academic year. However, as you would expect, he's not going to be sitting around twiddling his thumbs. His plan is to throw himself into his commercial business — RepRap Professional — which he runs with his business partner Jean-Marc Giacalone and his daughter, Sally. Needless to say, he is already looking at expanding the business.
It was a pleasure to meet Adrian and some of his students yesterday, and I would like to thank them for the time they spent talking to me. Definitely worth 9 hours in the car, alone but for mini eggs, red bull and my music. (Was going to put the band names, but it's just not worth the grief I'll get!!)