CNN is running a story about "RepRap," a type of self-replicating rapid prototyping machine. That description is a bit misleading, because the machine is not actually capable of full self-replication. It makes most of the parts, but not all, and still requires human assembly.
On the project website, they specify that RepRap is...
...a rapid-prototyping machine that can make all its components other than: self-tapping steel screws, brass bushes, lubricating grease, standard electronic chips such as microcontrollers and optical sensors, a standard plug-in low-voltage power brick, and stepper motors.
That's not a short list, and it's clear that RepRap is not the same thing as a nanofactory that will use integrated molecular machine systems to build complete products "from the bottom up" with atomic precision.
Nevertheless, it's a fascinating and potentially very significant endeavor. The project is the brainchild of Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath in England. You can see pictures of what they're doing and follow daily progress here.
Intriguingly, Bowyer plans to make the completed RepRap design available online and free to use, under the GNU General Public License. Theoretically, anyone with a replicating machine could then start manufacturing copies. Once someone owned the technology they could download other designs, or create their own.
Bowyer understandably has high hopes for RepRap. He envisions the technology spreading rapidly throughout the developing world and dramatically raising living standards.
Although it's not clear how, Bowyer also expects the completed RepRap machine to be able to make its own recycler. He says it could break down the products it has built into raw materials to be reused. That's an ambitious step, and we expect it will take a long time to achieve.
Perhaps the greatest benefit from RepRap will be to prepare the way for nanofactory technology. If some of the issues that concern CRN -- such as intellectual property, manufacture of dangerous objects, distribution of opportunity, design sharing, and others -- are raised by this project, that will be quite hepful.
Getting people to think about the implications of cheap, rapid prototyping, of machines that can be instructed to build copies of themselves, and of exponential distribution of manufacturing potential, is a good step toward the creation of responsible nanotechnology policy.