RepRap Alternatives

RepRap just doesn't hit any sweet spot with their current design. Too limited and crude to create much of interest for developed nations, other than RepRap hobbyists. Too high-tech and limited (and I am guessing unreliable, if one tried using it for regular production) to be of interest in less developed nations. In order for it to take off, it must offer easily accessible high value, to excite potential users who don't "get" that it's "just so darn cool!" AND be able to produce most of its own parts.

A computer controlled wood milling machine, with a 3D scanner to capture designs from hand carved wood parts, would at least have had a real market. Wood-working hobbyists in developed nations would pick it up fairly quickly. Craftsmen in less developed nations could use it to turn out copies of hand-carved furniture parts, decorations, bowls, etc. Where RepRap needs steel structural members, a wood milling system could turn out thick structural parts. [Vibrations in a wooden wood-milling machine would cause wear and slowly loosen its parts - but wooden screws could be built in at joints to let it be tightened up.]

Or a computer controlled metal casting mold-carving system, allowing craftsmen to download part designs or scan parts they want to copy, cut a negative mold out of plaster or soft-fired clay, then cast the part out of metal. Casting takes a higher level of skill - but getting complex metal parts is also a higher pay-off. A few such systems could turn out hand tools for local craftsmen. Add a design for an inexpensive solar furnace made mostly of local materials, and you might trigger mini-industrial revolutions in less developed nations, where the alternative is to import (expensive) or do without.

The key to small production systems is to lower entry barriers - in particular the learning barrier. Let the "robot" do the precise but repetitive work that would take years of training for a human craftsman to become sufficiently skilled to do it with conventional tools. Distribute the effort of creating new part designs over many people. Let the human craftsman start out easy - following simple directions created by taking pictures/videos with a cellphone (avoiding language barriers).

Another key, which may be harder to do in less developed nations, is to create a social climate of sharing between system owners. Somehow, the guy who just figured out that he could make a nice living out of one of these machines, has to be convinced to turn out copies for others like him. Unless you want to sent out missionaries to make all the copies anyone there will want, I think it might be necessary to create for-profit "guilds" or "franchises", sharing designs, turning out copies of machines - in return for granting each other regional monopolies. Sure, that's short sighted - eventually the monopolies would be broken (barring government interference). But it matches human nature better for getting fast roll-out in areas where it could make an economic difference. And people are more likely to place higher value on something if the price is higher - even if the price is mainly that they have to follow franchise/guild rules.


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