A new industrial revolution is coming — and it will be led by an army of self-replicating machines that will change the landscape of Israel, and the world.
This robot revolution is taking place in the form of self-replicating 3D printers that will, eventually, be found in towns and cities across Israel, “helping to make Israel the leader in the next industrial revolution, which will be epitomized by 3D printing,” according to Gidi Grinstein, director of the Reut Institute. “But it’s about more than 3D printing — it’s about creating a network of open-source spaces where anyone can go and create things, as well as learn the skills to thrive in the new era.”
It almost sounds like science fiction – but it’s science fact, and it’s happening right now. In a nondescript basement in the center of Tel Aviv, the Reut Institute has set up Israel’s first open-source 3D printer lab, where groups of high school students are already designing and producing a plethora of products, using sophisticated computer programs and strong, durable plastic-like material made from corn starch (called PLA), for use in Reut’s open-source 3D XLN (Cross-Labs Network) workspace, with its self-replicating printers.
“3D” means that you design a three-dimensional object on a computer screen, and the attached printer, using the PLA, produces a copy of the design on the spot. “Open-source” means that the design, computer code, and anything else necessary to build and run the printer is free and available to the public on the Internet. And “self-replicating” means just that, said Matan Harel, one of the managers of the lab. “We built one printer using instructions on the Internet, and we’ve used that printer to create the components for other printers,” said Harel. Eventually, that “original printer” will have produced clones — and their clones will have produced clones — to populate dozens, if not hundreds, of similar labs the Reut Institute is planning to set up around Israel.
Although you’d expect a project like this to be organized by an institution whose business is hard science, the Reut Institute is actually a policy group concerned with helping to shape the future of Israeli society. Established by Grinstein and others in 2004, Reut has worked closely with every Israeli government, producing studies and position papers on issues from security to the high price of consumer goods to the role of the Diaspora in modern Jewish life. The group also runs numerous programs to encourage women, Arabs, and the disenfranchised to share the bounty of Israeli society, as part of its “Israel 15” vision – referring to efforts to make Israel among the top 15 most prosperous, equitable, and livable societies in the world.
The XLN project fits right in with that vision, said Grinstein. “Our objective is to ‘leapfrog’ Israeli society to become a world leader in quality of life. We’ve done extensive studies on how this can be done, and innovation — definitely one of Israel’s strengths — is a great way to ensure that the country can reach that goal in the coming decade.” An important factor in Israel’s success has been access to and availability of technology that individuals could learn and excel in. And the next big revolution is going to be in 3D, Grinstein believes — so ensuring that the ability to learn, use, and excel in this technology is an important factor of the Israel 15 plan.
Israel is actually already a world leader in 3D printing, thanks to Objet, the Rehovot-based maker and innovator of 3D technology. But if Objet’s products are the Rolls-Royces of the 3D world, Reut is more interested in hot-rodding the old ’67 Chevy in the garage. “Objet has very fine products, but they are for use in high-level sophisticated manufacturing scenarios, while we are more about the education and the bootstrapping,” said Harel. That Objet recently dropped a $100 million IPO bid to merge with American 3D tech company Stratasys — to create a behemoth valued at $1.4 billion — shows just how much potential there is in 3D printing.
While Objet’s printers are used to “print” very delicate and sophisticated products, the printers in the XLN lab have been used for more prosaic items, like keychains, bottle openers, and other small and medium-sized objects. Given enough machines, and powerful enough machines, 3D printers can produce just about anything — even cars and planes, said Harel. It’s possible that a graduate who learns his or her skills at XLN will go on to work with those kinds of objects, but Harel sees the value in 3D printing in products that can help people live better, and save money.
“This revolution will have tremendous value to people with customized needs,” Harel said. “We can easily mass produce products today, but try to manufacture a customized product — like a prosthetic or other medical aid. Producing them is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive — but for a 3D printer, it’s as hard or as easy as any other product.”
Imagine a chain of “printing stores” where an individual who needs a customized product can walk in with a plan, and walk out a half hour later with that exact item, designed to the customer’s specs. “Obviously the 3D printing we will provide will not be competing with mass production, but mass production will be unable to compete with the ease of production and lower price 3D can provide for customized products.” Harel envisions a website where individuals can order customized products, and pick them up at their local XLN lab. “Those products will be 95 percent cheaper than what they can get now,” he added.
A 3D printer in action looks a lot like a fast laser printer – except instead of toner, the printer uses PLA to print, and instead of filling up space two-dimensionally with words and pictures, the 3D printer outputs layers of PLA on a surface, adding more layers until the object is formed. And, perhaps unique to the world of machines, a 3D printer can duplicate itself — and it’s that ability that Reut is relying on to populate the labs it is planning. “It takes about a week to print a new printer, and each one costs about $600 to $700,” said Harel. And the effort to produce more 3D “children” is well under way. Once another printer is produced, that printer can be conscripted to produce another one — as can the printer it produces.
And eventually, Harel hopes the lab will produce printers that “grow,” bigger printers that can produce bigger objects. “People are printing homes, wall by wall,” he said. So eventually, Reut’s printers will be able to produce not only printers to populate new labs, but the lab buildings themselves.