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The 3D Printers that Print 3D Printers

It’s like a robotic organ farm.

If you've ever wondered how 3D printers are made, the answer is surprisingly meta.

As this clip from the Science Channel shows, a fair amount of 3D printer parts are actually 3D printed.

At the facility shown here, rows and rows of 3D printers are kept constantly churning out parts for new 3D printers—which is very efficient, even if eerily reminiscent of a robot sweatshop.

As the voiceover artist excitedly points out, "this technology is truly self-replicating!" [Side note: I'm pretty sure this guy has been doing the voice work for all informational science videos made since I was in grade school.]

These printers make 40 different components of the finished 3D printer, including gears, brackets, and mechanism housing. Other components, like the aluminum frame, the motor, and the glass print bed, can't be made from plastic and so are sourced or created by other means.

Update: a representative for Aleph Objects, which make the LulzBot line of 3D printers featured in the video, reached out to Motherboard. "They use their own 3D printers to produce their own machines more than any other manufacturer (in fact, they just 3D printed their 500,000th part)," the representative said in an email. "The printer that's seen in the video is the LulzBot TAZ, which is manufactured by Aleph Objects, Inc. in Loveland, Colorado."

The idea of a 3D printer that can produce most of its own parts is not new, however. The RepRap project, begun in the UK in 2005, sought to do just that. Thanks to its open design, the effort has since become a successful global initiative with many collaborators.

The operation of a 3D printer is pretty simple. The printing material comes from a reel of plastic filament that is fed into the printer's toolhead. There, the filament is melted and dispensed onto the print bed, sort of like the way a glue gun operates. With the help of a motor in the toolhead, the melted plastic is dispensed according to the pattern being produced. Both the toolhead and the printer bed are movable parts, but are restricted to one plane of movement. With both parts moving simultaneously, the printer is able to produce curved lines. The effect is almost balletic.

It takes a long time for a 3D printer to print an object—an hour, give or take, depending on the object's size and complexity. One can only assume that print times will be shortened as the technology improves, but for now it's still pretty damn impressive.