3D printing, or ‘additive manufacturing’, has been around for several decades, but in recent months there has been a huge surge of interest in its capabilities. This is mainly because of its use in the production of the world’s first working ‘homemade’ plastic gun, showing that although this technology can achieve amazing things, it also has a darker side.
So what exactly is 3D printing, and how does it work? Although additive manufacturing in plastic is the focus of most people’s attention, in fact a range of different 3D printing technologies exists, using a variety of materials from wood to ceramic. Regardless of the material, the basic principle for all the technologies is the same. The process uses digital models created by computer aided design (CAD) software as printing guidelines to create solid 3D objects. As the name additive manufacturing suggests, this works by laying down successive layers of materials in different shapes on a platform of some kind. This technology can create objects in virtually any shape, and greatly increases the speed of products’ construction.
This technology has been used in industry since 1989. Its application had been restricted to making prototypes for testing parts, but it is now increasingly being used in the manufacturing process itself, for everything from footwear to guitar picks. As Peter Day argues, the potential impact of this development is great. It could theoretically vastly reduce the need for factories, production lines, and shipping, thus individualising industries previously reliant on mass production. Already people can send CAD designs to 3D print shops, who then translate them into real objects. An example of this is the Dutch company Shapeways, which transforms customers’ computer designs into real products, such as personalised jewellery and smartphone cases.
The production of desktop 3D printers for home use is a fairly recent development, so for most people the dream of printing off products from the comfort of their own home is still far off. However, the price of 3D printers (made by companies such as MakerBot and Formlabs) has fallen rapidly over the past few years and their sales are on the up. At $3299, Formlabs’ 3D printer ‘The Form 1’ (now available to pre-order) is still prohibitively expensive, but if prices continue to fall as the technology becomes easier to produce, this will change.
Domestic users of 3D technology have so far mainly employed it in the creation of everyday household items or ornamental objects, but it has the capacity to revolutionise industries such as construction. Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssennars hopes to make the first house using 3D printing by 2014. Another field of research is looking into the use of 3D printing in the creation of human organs and tissues.
3D printing can be used to create, but it can also be used to destroy. A major concern about the advances made in 3D printing revolves is its implications for gun control in the US. Gun laws are already under scrutiny after a spate of shootings, but 3D printing adds a new dimension to the debate. On Saturday 4th May 2013, the world’s first 3D gun was successfully fired in Texas. Made entirely out of plastic, aside from the firing pin, this was a watershed moment in the application of additive manufacturing.
Behind the gun’s production is company Defense Distributed, which describes itself as “dedicated in defending the civil liberty of popular access to arms as guaranteed by the United States Constitution”. After the firing, Defense Distributed published blueprints for a plastic gun (the so-called “Liberator”) on its website, DEFCAD, which were subsequently taken down on the demands of the US government for possible breach of firearms regulations – but not before they had been downloaded more than 100,000 times. And although the files have been removed from DEFCAD, they can still be found on other websites.
The gun was fired by Defense Distributed’s founder, 25-year-old law student Cody Wilson, who denies any sense of responsibility about the possibility of its blueprint falling into the wrong hands. Speaking to the BBC after the firing he said, “I recognise the tool might be used to harm other people – that’s what the tool is – it’s a gun. But I don’t think that’s a reason to not do it – or a reason not to put it out there.” He claims that his decision to put the designs online is “about liberty”, and maintains that the Liberator project complies with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) rules. Production of certain gun types is legal in the US, and Wilson was granted a licence from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to make the “Liberator”.
Worrying though the idea is, everyday production of plastic guns at home is not yet a reality: at this stage the technology is still limited. The gun fired by Wilson took eight months to make, and was manufactured on an $8000 industrial 3D printer bought on eBay, in order to use a strong high-density plastic able to endure the force required to fire the bullet. Defense Distributed itself says that one obstacle to overcome in the use of plastic guns is the risk of them melting. But does the real danger lie in plastic weapons? The idea of a plastic gun has captured the public’s imagination, but Shelly Palmer is more concerned about what other weapons 3D printers may produce in the future, when the technology is more developed and limitations to usable materials no longer exist. One day, 3D printers may be able to manufacture guns in steel and carbon fibre. Palmer believes that 3D printers will also render the notion of gun control obsolete, with those wishing to do so able to print weapons and ammunition at will – all untraceable.
Indeed, many people are concerned about the lack of traceability of such weapons. Some politicians (such as New York congressmen Steve Israel and Chuck Schumer) are pushing for a 3D printing provision to be added to the US Undetectable Firearms Act (which itself is due to expire in December 2013). This Act requires all firearms to be detectable in airport metal detectors.
Law enforcement agencies, such as Europol and the Future Crimes Unit, are closely monitoring the development of cybercrime and 3D printing technology, with the aim of staying one step ahead of criminals. Europol’s Victoria Baines believes that, for the moment, criminals will still use traditional ‘offline’ means to procure weapons, but that the technology could create problems in the future when it becomes less expensive and easier to use. We can only hope that when it 3D printing is available for all to use, that it will be used to benefit humanity, rather than harm it.