BATH, UK—According to researchers at the University of Bath, machines that can make everything from a cup to a clarinet quickly and cheaply could be in people's homes within the next few years.

Current designs, based on rapid prototype machines of the type now used by industry, cost $50,000 or more. But Adrian Bowyer, PhD., of the university's Center for Biomimetics, is hoping to bring those costs down by designing a machine capable of making copies of itself, with the idea that as the machine's numbers increase, prices will fall. Ultimately, he hopes to post the necessary 3D models for his machine on the Internet where they can downloaded for free, thus kicking the process into gear.

"People have been talking for years about the cost of these machines dropping to be about the same as a computer printer," Bowyer says. "But it hasn't happened. Maybe my idea will allow this to occur."

The machines would be about the size of a refrigerator and self-reproduce by making parts that would then have to be assembled manually by their owners. Bowyer anticipates that once assembled, these machines will be able to make everything from complete dish sets to digital cameras, although home manufacturers would have to add lenses and circuitry to the latter for them to actually function.

The only other supplies that machine owners would need to buy is some plastic or an easy-to-work low-temperature alloy, at a cost of just a few dollars, Bowyer says. They could then download design programs from the Internet or create designs of their own using a home PC.

For more on the project, visit staff.bath.ac.uk/ensab/replicator/.