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Building anything, anywhere starts with this 3D printer

This solar-powered 3D printer fits in a suitcase and can replicate itself or print parts to build an even larger 3D printer.

A factory in a suitcase. Debbie King

Open-source 3D printing has the potential to address all sorts of problems in the developing world, and yet it remains largely a first world-centered curiosity primarily used to create geeky figurines, models, jewelry and phone cases.

Enter Michigan Technological University professor Joshua Pearce and his troika of obsessions -- 3D printing, solar power and the open-source movement. Pearce combined these to create 3D printers designed for communities that need their own means of production but don't have a reliable source of electricity.

"Say you are in the Peace Corps going to an off-grid community," Pearce said in a statement. "You could put your clothes in a backpack and take this printer in your suitcase. It's a mobile manufacturing facility that can make whatever you and the community need or value. It has nearly unlimited flexibility."

Technically, this isn't the first solar 3D printer we've seen. An ambitious graduate student set up some panels and a 3D printer in the Sahara Desert a few years back that was capable of turning the desert sand into 3D-printed glass creations.

Pearce's concept for sun-powered 3D printing aims to be a bit more practical and utilitarian, however. In an article published September 30 in the journal Challenges in Sustainability (PDF). Pearce and his colleagues describe two solar-powered 3D printers they designed.

The larger printer model is basically a set of photovoltaic panels with a standalone printer that could, as Pearce conceives it, be set up at a school or community center to print anything from toys to science-lab equipment for pennies.

Perhaps more exciting is the smaller system Pearce's team devised, which can fit in a suitcase. While the larger, less stationary printer may appear more productive and powerful, the smaller one is a RepRap, an open-source 3D printer capable of replicating itself or printing parts to make larger printers.

The suitcase system can be put together for as little as $1,300 right now, but Pearce expects the cost to fall even further in the future.

You may have heard some cliché about how "it takes a village," but in the future it may take just one of these printers to eventually make a village.