Archive for the ‘RepRap’ Category

Geoff Manaugh (as well as Worldchanging and basically everyone else in that line) has a post on a project at the RSA to think about the architectural consequences of RepRaps and other forms of decentralised industry. Like a lot of Manaugh’s stuff, it’s interesting…but it breaks off before confronting some of the more concrete impacts. What happens when the circus leaves town? Isn’t part of the point of this whole project to render the economy less dependent on the macroenvironment of capital investment?

(This is a great idea, though.)

Also, arms control in the age of self contained CNC machines; Geoff Fordan from Armscontrolwonk finds out what’s inside a big shed in central Burma. In fact, it’s a collection of the latest computerised machine tools, but not organised into a production line of any known type, or even a Canon-like system where the robots serve the workers.

Are they planning to reverse engineer missile or nuclear technology? Of course, they could be planning for industrialisation; but who builds a CNC shop in the middle of a jungle, far from where anyone lives who might work there, or anyone who might buy its products?


Dan Lockton would probably be interested in this…

The robot is this Bristol Robotics Lab project; both people in the thread at Jamie Zawinski’s I saw it in, and everyone I’ve shown it to, immediately think it looks like a cat.

In fact, in a sense, they do recognise it as a cat – it’s roughly the right size and shape, it’s in the right place, and if you wave a piece of string in its whiskers it responds much like a cat. But actually, as the project Web site tells us:

The robot was designed to reproduce the behaviour of rats as they use their whiskers to explore their environment. To get a clearer picture of how rats use their whiskers we filmed them using high speed video cameras (500fps) and manually tracked the position of each whisker in the array on a frame by frame basis. Software based automatic tracking is still very much in its infancy though there are a number of groups (including our Sheffield partners) who are now working toward such an application.

The data from this whisker tracking allowed us to quantify the kinematics of whiskers as the rats explored novel environments. From this we found that following a whisker making contact with an object there was a very rapid (~13ms) change in the velocity profile of the ‘whisking’, or movement pattern of the whiskers. We also observed that the rat will tend to move, or orient, its nose toward the exact point of contact.

Our hypotheses were that the rat was trying to optimise the force applied by the whiskers making contact with the object as well as bringing as many addition whiskers as possible, and its nose for smelling, to bear on that point. The orienting behaviour we see as an example of a higher level control loop through the brain, very similar in nature to how we as visually dominant animals rapidly orient, or saccade, the fovea of our eyes toward interesting events detected by our peripheral vision.

To this end we designed our robot to mimic both the low level contact mediated adaptation of the whisker motion pattern and the ability to orient its ‘nose’ towards points in three dimensional space. Designing the physical robot to be capable of mimicking these behaviours allows us to test different computational models of the underlying brain structures which can control it.

So it’s a ratbot, and interestingly enough, it’s an example of a hardware simulation of a biological phenomenon.

But this is also an example of an interesting design phenomenon; if you want objects to be immediately comprehensible, it helps to use the patterns Dan details here; notably, in this case, similarity, mimicry, and role-playing. Everyone knows how to act around a cat; a robot, not so much. We’ve been trained to do so by cats. And this part of the project will be unavoidably cattish:

We hope to be able to demonstrate the validity of the proposed brain model by the robot being able to chase an object (perhaps a remote controlled car) moving through its whisker field

Aww. Also, our associations for cat- and also dog-like behaviour stimulate our curiosity towards them, in part because we project it on them. Just as making a new smartphone an interesting object to handle speeds the learning process, a robot that encourages curiosity and interaction towards itself will speed its users’ learning process.

I suspect that the response to the Bristol Scratchbot would have been rather different had we been told in advance that it was emulating a rat. (Special note – much of the robot was made on a rapid prototyper.)

Ill-coordinated links. Great news in RepRapping – South Korean scientists have succeeded in getting bacteria to make polylactic acid. PLA is the RepRap project’s favourite feedstock because it’s a reasonably tractable, general purpose plastic that can be synthesised from starch. The synthesis is not exactly simple, which is why outsourcing the job to germs is interesting. As the kit of parts now costs about £395, I really ought to get started with one of these. Now there’s a Christmas present for you. “Engineered bacteria not included.” MUM! YOU FORGOT THE GERMS!

The uranium-enrichment deal with Iran is still on, but they are looking for stronger guarantees of getting the promised fuel for their research reactor. I reckon this is going to come down to the exact number of kilos that leave at a time, and therefore to a fine judgment about the efficiency of their centrifuges.

Spencer Ackerman mourns a great Mod shop. I remember that Klass Clothing in Leeds was about the first business of any kind in town to have a Web site, apart from these guys for obvious reasons. That’s gone, as is Sam Walker in Covent Garden…and possibly even the SL1200!


RepRap made circuits.

Cool; an application that uses rules you give it to generate weird and three-dimensional graphics. (Via Sterling, who else.) This comes to mind, though; what if it could generate STL computer-aided design files? They are the kind that the RepRap’s host software eats, I think. And making them in hardware, you have to admit, is just that crucial bit cooler.

Especially when the RepRap ends up surrounding itself in increasingly tiny interlocking cubes, like that spider in the J.G. Ballard story whose web is made of brain tissue, and which eventually goes mad and strangles itself. Hey, you’d get an Arts Council grant for the film, if not the installation. A tad messy even for an art establishment that loved Tracey Emin.

Here is Hewlett Packard Labs’ Cloudprint, a service that allows you to print your documents to a server in their network and receive a shortcode (which can be distributed to any number of people at the same time). Then, when you need the docs, you send the code from your mobile phone and specify a web-connected printer you want to collect them from. The frontend is here, and there’s a handy mashup to help you find one. You can also send any webpage into the system, presumably using the print engine HP’s Tabblo uses.

And here are the RepRap guys, making rapid progress. Is anyone else thinking what I’m thinking? The RepRap’s software uses a standard file format for its 3D designs, STL, not to be confused with my employers.

Update: Guess who went to a high-level tech conference where a senior Vice President and divisional CTO of Hewlett Packard was present and forgot entirely about his brilliant printer- and HP-related idea? Truly, the status of Tech Blogger Worshipped by Crowds of Immature Neophiles is beyond my abilities.

A tradition is born

The Hunt question

The Bath University RepRap project (to build a rapid-prototyping tool that can make copies of itself) is coming on with all due speed, and I especially like their latest test part, a natty Linux penguin. Which is fitting for a project that’s all open-source. Back when they got started, Phil Hunt of Cabalamat Journal posed the fascinating question of what happens when every workshop in the DRC can make surface-to-air missiles.

DefenceTech is nearly there, discussing the spread of cheap CNC machine tools and the US Army’s mobile parts hospital, a workshop in a shipping container that can run off parts for almost anything they use. It’s not true RepRapping, but it’s close, especially as the RepRap team has discussed using signmakers’ CNC plastic jigs to multiply first-generation RepRaps.