The RepRap project was hugely instrumental in making 3D printing affordable and accessible to hobbyists. It originally launched with two goals: to always remain open-source, and to develop 3D printers that could 3D-print 3D printers. The second part of that goal has largely remained unfulfilled, because so many of the components of a 3D printer are electronic or made out of metal. But that doesn’t mean that dream will never be possible, and researchers at MIT have a developed a set of components and a robot that could someday replicate itself.
This concept is one that is common in science fiction, but which has yet to be realized in the real world. Break anything down to small enough parts, and you’re just left with tiny pieces like amino acids, atoms, or sub-atomic particles. What if you could create a machine that could use those pieces like LEGO bricks to fabricate anything you can think of? There are both practical and scientific reasons why that won’t happen anytime soon — you can’t just shove an oxygen atom against two hydrogen atoms to form water, after all. But this system developed by the MIT researchers is a huge step forward.
At this time, they’ve only developed a few building blocks: rigid struts, flexible struts, coils, and magnets. Those are scalable, so they can be used to build nano robots or gigantic robots. A machine that is like a cross between a 3D printer and a pick-and-place machine can then assemble those parts to form a variety of different machines. Right now their capabilities are limited, but that can be expanded by adding new kinds of building blocks. The goal is to eventually have a system capable of creating just about any kind of technology, including the robot itself that does the assembly. Machines created with these building blocks could be disassembled for parts that could then be used to create entirely new machines.