This week marks the
10th anniversary of the RepRap project. At 3D
Printing Industry we’re interviewing some of the earlier
pioneers and leading figures in the open source and FFF 3D
Vik Olliver was the first RepRap
volunteer. He is a widely recognized Open Source expert
and also brought skills in hardware and software development to
the project. It was Vik Olliver who first had the idea of using
PLA as material in the FFF 3D printing process. In this article
Vik Olliver talks about the history of the RepRap project, some
of the key developments and the future of
Dr. Adrian Bowyer and
Vik Olliver. Photo via Vik Olliver.
Michael Petch: How did you come to be involved in the RepRap
Vik Olliver: Long story. In the mid-90’s I set out
to carve a piece of culturally significant New Zealand
I made a 3D model of the intended piece and just kept on doing
3D modelling. Before long I was modelling planets, spacecraft,
the moon and so forth – then a chap from NASA saw my work and
wanted to use it as a backdrop for a private manned lunar
mission proposal: Project Artemis. His foreground model was
tacky, so I modelled it properly and that led to me designing
real satellites, lunar spacecraft, life support systems etc.
and working on a return to the moon.
Realising that you can’t take all the spares for life
support with you I began designing a machine that could make
the parts, and the parts for itself. Whole reading New
Scientist magazine, I saw
an article by Adrian proposing a replicating
machine and realised “Yeah, one of those would
be really handy on Earth too.” I contacted Adrian and we had a
discussion in which he suggested that squirting plastic was the
way to go.
I had a free week
coming up, so I drew on a lifetime’s supply of Meccano and my
daughter’s supply of glue guns (sorry darling, Daddy will get
you new ones) to create the first prototype in my workshop –
little more than a motorised glue gun on a stick hanging over a
self-lowering turntable. It could however print a short tube
from readily available materials in an unregulated workshop
environment. I presented this to Adrian and became member #3 on
Vik Olliver’s Meccano 3D
printer. Photo via Vik Olliver.
Michael Petch: Please can you tell me a little about your
role in the project?
Vik Olliver: A tinkerer and hacker, occasional
documenter. I designed stuff, built prototypes from scrap, and
did a lot of adapting the designs to use everyday materials and
parts. Not everything worked, but finding out what does and
doesn’t quickly is a necessary part of the game. I made the
first 3D printed part on a prototype to replace a tooled part
in the prototype. I designed a screw-driven extruder, ways to
mould gears, experimented with bed materials and coatings (blue
tape is one of mine), and filaments – I made the first PLA
filament. I set up a company Diamond Age Solutions
Ltd. to sell the filament to
I built the first “Child” printer – one assembled from
the parts printed by a 3D printed printer; being able to
assemble things quickly and bodge the parts on the fly helped.
i.e. Replacing (then) unobtainable drive belt with the ball
chain used to tie down bath plugs. I designed a lasercut
acrylic version of the Darwin. My super power is probably
debugging though 🙂 I have an understanding of things from
mining the copper and silicon to programming the finished
computer, and can trace bugs through hardware and software. I
turned the fact that things always break around me into an
asset… I also travelled a lot and evangelised to the Open
Source community and Maker movement.
Filament was a pain because nobody supplied what we
needed. Adrian bought a big bag of CAPA aka Polymorph aka
Friendly Plastic. This softens around 60C and you can shape it
by hand. We rolled it between sheets of glass with a knitting
needle as a spacer to produce short lengths of filament, and
welded them together with a lighter! With practice, as at a
live demo in Vienna, I could make filament faster than the
printer used it. However, after I’d got PLA filament made by
collaborating with a nice chap called Allan at a local plastics
factory (Imagin Plastics,
Auckland. Still selling it.) our life became a
3D printed gears for the
RepRap. Photo via Vik Olliver.
Michael Petch: What are your thoughts about how RepRap has
developed over the past decade?
Vik Olliver: RepRap evolved from the first proof
of concept machines to the kits we know today in relatively
short order. They evolved pretty much as we expected them to,
but the proliferation of support from Chinese companies to
independently produce the Open Sourced electronics needed to
build the was an unexpected bonus. These kits and parts
encouraged further experiment as they could be easily adapted
thanks to their open source nature.
This led to the creation of multi-head printers, the fast
delta configuration designs, and various versions of printer
with continuous belts as print platforms. Lots of innovation,
most of it Open Source, and thus those designs will drive
further evolution. Kudos to Catalsyt IT Ltd of
Auckland who employed me remotely and let me
have one day a week (“Google Time”) to run an Open Source
project. RepRap of course.
Makerbot was started by us to provide a way of printing
parts for 3D printers and bootstrapping the process. The
takeover management (my thoughts about the matter are
unprintable in family publications) closed the design off from
the community and while they made some money they basically
stopped innovating beyond the basic design. Meanwhile,
laboratories wanting to make custom printers for, say, printing
body parts, would use RepRap-based machines for their
developments because the workings were documented, easily
modified, and supported by an enthusiastic community.
RepRap-based designs still hugely outsell Makerbots.
The RepRap design is printing a lot more materials than
we started with, and has been adapted to wield lasers, routers,
pens, knives, inkjet nozzles and pasta extruders. These are
used to produce more Open Source tools, which get folded back
into the process to produce more exotic machines.
At the other extreme,
kids scavenging the e-waste tips we ship off to Togo are
building their own RepRap-based 3D printers from the
scrap, now they know it can be done.
It’s fun to watch evolution in action.
The first selfmade RepRap
part fitted. Photo via Vik Olliver.
Michael Petch: Are you still working with 3D printing, what
are you currently working on?
Vik Olliver: Not directly. I’m trying to persuade
people to do the same thing we did to RepRap on a much smaller
scale – individual atoms. The ultimate aim is self-replicating
nanomachines, but getting there is tricky. This means we’ll
have to do the same thing as the RepRap project did – cheat. We
used existing precision threaded rods and belts, took
impressions to generate gears, and used common motors.
Nanotechnology will have to bootstrap from existing crystal
structures, proteins, and so forth instead. Lots of great work
being done at the Technical University of
Munich (TUM). As with RepRap, trying to convince people
this is not mad is half the battle!
Eventually the chemistry of ever more complicated
materials will be able to interact with the smallest machines
we can make to provide manufacturing capability all the way
from the macro world to an atom. We will have digitised matter,
and at that point you can make just about anything for just
While pursuing this dream, I farm olives, support the
local Fab Lab workshop, and develop keyboards for disabled
people in China.
Vik Olliver and his
RepRap 3D printer. Photo via Vik Olliver.
Michael Petch: What is your perspective on the state of Open
Source in 2018 and is there still a need for OS
Vik Olliver: Open Source is in pretty good shape,
it has a huge army of developers and testers, and they’re more
connected than ever before. What’s not in good shape is its
adoption. Bureaucracy was invented to pass the buck, and
proprietary development houses have played on a fear that it
may be difficult to pass the buck onto an anarchistic crowd of
diverse individuals. Those who actually know how things work
will know that Open Source development is not like that, but
the ignorance is there and can be readily manipulated.
Still a need for OS? That’d be a “Hell Yes!” because it
is the best way to collaborate and innovate. It’s 2018,
Microsoft’s notepad app is 35 years old, and it’s only just
supported UNIX and MacOS line endings. Proprietary companies
spend huge amounts of money – our money – shaping our
governments, commerce and society to their own ends, basically
so we give them even more money. Then they stick it all on
their own servers, call it “The Cloud” and charge us rent for
the privilege! They can do this because they create their own
lock-in: You can’t drop Facebook because all your friends are
on Facebook, right? Even if they’re selling your digital
Basically Open Source technology is the only way we’ll
end up as citizens in this technological world, rather than as
Michael Petch: What is 3D printing currently missing, what
would you like to see?
Vik Olliver: Multiple heads printing
simultaneously to increase speed and/or use more materials. It
could be done using asymmetrical delta printers that overlap a
workspace. Incline that workspace to 45 degrees, and stick a
moving belt under it for a base and you can print infinitely
long objects really quickly.
Smarter materials. It’s still tough to print a circuit,
let alone a functioning electronic component. Materials are
needed that engage actively with their surroundings rather than
passively: repeatable movement, changes in state, changes on
volume, self-healing, self-organisation. For your average
RepRapper not much has changed in the feedstock department
since I created the first PLA filament.
More education on all levels. Too often I see schools
with 3D printers gathering dust because the staff don’t know
how to use them. I see students being taught “3D Printing” in
the same way that you can teach “Computing” by showing students
how to use a spreadsheet. Kids need to experiment with the
process and the materials, not just learn how to print a
Michael Petch: Do you have any other RepRap thoughts you’d
like to share?
Vik Olliver: When we all got our first Darwins
working, we each printed out “minimug” cups, and toasted each
other 🙂 It was fun listening to people telling us that we
couldn’t possibly make a machine that could print itself, when
we had one in the workshop…
The 3D printed shot
glass. Photo via Vik Olliver.
I once had to explain at NZ Customs and Excise HQ that
Maurice Williamson the current minister’s assertion that
3D printers would print gold, gems and drugs
so they should be restricted was complete nonsense, and
pointed out that even if they could this would not be a bad
We always knew that people would use the RepRap for good
and evil, as every technology has been. People want to use any
new technology to produce weapons, sex toys , and drugs
paraphernalia. But Adrian pointed out that given something like
the internal combustion engine, people tend to build more
ambulances than tanks. In recent mass shootings in Palestine by
the IDF, I noticed that the Palestinians are not 3D printing
3D printing tourniquet kits. They’re
using RepRap-derived Prusa printers and local recycled
filament. They’re making them in the quantities they need,
breaking a blockade, and making sizes that fit children because
they treat more of them for gunshots than adults. They’re
evolving the design so it can be deployed on the run or under
fire, and it’s Open Source so others in similar situations can
There’s Dr. Michael Laufer and his cohort of DIY medical
activists at Four
Thieves Vinegar Collective, 3D printing affordable versions
of the ludicrously expensive (and patented)
various other medical devices. Again,
providing necessary medical devices as Open Source to those who
are in greatest need but have no money to interest
Simple biochemical reactors are being printed. Soon there
will be little DIY “drug factories” popping out of printers.
The authorities (possibly helped by aforementioned pharma) will
decry the devices as being production systems for meth and
heroin, while there is much need for asthma control and heart
medication that currently goes unfulfilled because of cost and
access. It’s tanks and ambulances all over again.
We didn’t just build a 3D printer, we built a community
that’s still going.
The RepRap 10th Anniversary series continues
You can read more in the
RepRap 10th Anniversary series here. Make sure
you don’t miss the forthcoming interviews with other RepRap
pioneers, subscribe to the 3D Printing
Industry newsletter and follow us on social
Want to work in additive manufacturing or looking for
a 3D printing
job? Sign up for our free jobs service
Featured image shows Vik Olliver and his RepRap 3D
printer. Photo via Vik Olliver.