Gwynne Dyer: Making guns with 3-D printers

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The story so far: Cody Wilson, who describes himself as a “crypto-anarchist” and almost certainly wears a Second Amendment belt buckle, had a bright idea early last year. No government could ever oppress its people again, reasoned the 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas, if everybody in the world was able to manufacture their own guns at home.

Well, not everybody in the world, exactly, but at least everybody with $8,000 to buy a 3-D printer on eBay, or access to one of the 3-D printing shops that are springing up in major cities. So Wilson set out to design a gun made entirely of high-density ABS plastic that could be printed on a standard 3-D machine. He printed and tested it, and last week he made the blueprints available online.

For those who are not clear on the concept (the rest may proceed in an orderly manner to the next paragraph), a 3-D printer is basically a photocopying machine that sprays molten plastic instead of ink. But instead of doing only one layer on a sheet of paper, it does thousands of layers, one on top of the other, until it has formed a fully three-dimensional object. Like a gun.

There are not all that many 3-D printers in circulation yet, but they are the next big thing, and in five or 10 years they may be as common as mobile phones. It would appear that a great many people are looking forward to that happy day, because in the first week after Wilson uploaded the blueprints for his gun, 100,000 people downloaded them.

Wilson is one of those political innocents on the libertarian right who truly believe that governments would behave better if everybody had a gun. He even calls his plastic pistol the “Liberator”. He presumably hasn’t noticed that the United States government carries on collecting heavy taxes and crushing the spirit of free enterprise even though most Americans already have guns.

Predictably, last Friday (May 10), the U.S. government mobilized to shut his little enterprise down. The Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance at the State Department wrote Wilson’s company, Defense Distributed, demanding that his designs for a 3-D gun be "removed from public access" until he proves that he has not broken the laws that govern the shipment of weapons overseas. (Is he really shipping weapons overseas? Don’t bother us with details.)

The government took that route because there has been an instant public outcry about the “Liberator”—but Wilson already has a licence to manufacture and sell the weapon from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. As for exporting the blueprints, he also registered his operation under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), administered by the State Department, and has legal advice that it complies with the rules.

But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. There have not only been 100,000 downloads from Wilson’s own site. It has also been uploaded onto the Pirate Bay (with no protest from him), and downloads from that site are going through the roof. So what does all this mean?

It doesn’t mean that terrorists are more dangerous; they have never had any trouble in getting their hands on weapons a lot more lethal than a single-shot pistol. It does mean that people can now make weapons that will not be detected by this generation of airport metal detectors, so it may soon take even longer to get on the plane. But that was going to happen pretty soon anyway.

What Cody Wilson has actually done is provide us with a useful wake-up call about the huge economic and security implications of this powerful new technology. The 3-D printers will get better, faster, and cheaper, and they will be able to produce much more impressive weapons. Forget about banning assault weapons; people will be able to make them at home.

More importantly, they will also be able to 3-D-print almost any other mass-produced item whose components are less than a metre (three feet) long. This not only has serious implications for retailers of such items—the Walmarts of the world, but also for entire countries whose economy depends heavily on manufacturing and exporting items of this sort. Even the cheapest labour is probably more expensive than 3-D printing.

So “outsourcing” will go out of fashion, but the impact of 3-D printing on traditional employment patterns in the developed countries will be just as severe. Cars will continue to be built on (highly automated) assembly lines, but the most of the companies in the supply chain will collapse as the car manufacturers start printing the parts themselves as and when they need them.

Here comes the future again.

Comments (9) Add New Comment
Paul
This isn't one tenth as amazing as it sounds. People can already make guns, or pretty much anything on computer controlled milling machines - if they own a CNC mill. Injection molding will always be a far cheaper method of mass production than 3D printer, if only because it is so much faster. What 3D printing will allow is much cheaper development of the molds. It will allow more people to more easily develop product prototypes. It will make very small production runs of unique parts economically viable.

That's all.


This is like predicting that the colour laser printer would make printing houses obsolete. Or that the computerized office would render paper un-necessary, that e-mail would put the post-office out of business, or that somehow the internet would somehow render the manufacture of real products irrelevant (remember that one?) 3D printing is cool technology, it is useful technology, it is certainly changing some businesses, but it is not going to end the mass production of parts any more than TV ended radio. Or film. Or live performances. Or going for a walk after dinner.
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peter aardvark
actually Paul, printing houses are becoming obsolete - thanks to internet, smartphones, and for that matter high quality copiers whereby customers get their own. I know I work in the print business. The same is happening to newspapers and book printers. It is called creative destruction. I know that cnc machining has been around for a while, but I expect that 3d printing will move into unexpected areas such as printing complete electronic devices or for that matter organs such as kidneys - all of this is being developed right now. Down the road, perhaps in less than 30years, we may see personal nano-factories - which physicist Richard Feynman postulated in room at the bottom. Given all the rapid change in nano-technology and synthetic biology we may be able to manufacture whatever we want with a PN machine in our shed. Bottle of Chardonnay, Mona Lisa, Gold whatever.. That would really change everything. For an interesting read see what James Burke says about it.. (he's still alive).
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Leone
What scares me is not the technology itself but the speed at which it is developing - faster than our wisdom to know how to properly handle it.
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Plastic
3-D printing requires specific plastic. Control that and 3-D printing becomes impossible. Plastic comes from oil. Control of oil is already in place.
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HellSlayerAndy
Two observations

1)"It has also been uploaded onto the Pirate Bay (with no protest from him), and downloads from that site are going through the roof."
Why would Wilson protest????
He has stated over and over again he is not profiting from it and has in at least two interviews noted that the files are widely available as torrents???
Further the point, he previously made a 3-D cad of an working AR-15 which he stated bluntly he wasn't going to release to public on legal advice. Nonetheless, FBI/ATF/DoJ coerced the company that leased the machine to him to confiscate it back under court order. Luckily for Wilson he had more than enough other companies privately offer use of their machines so that he could continue his 'research'.

2) For anyone that hasn't looked at the file, there is a curious thing noteworthy that never seems to make it into these media 'commentaries' including this one. Wilson has included instructions in both English...and Chinese only? I would like someone in the media to ask him specifically why the decision to include Chinese instructions and not other foreign languages if the intent is to offer it to humanity for some 'libertarian' ideal?
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David English
I agree that Cody Wilson has brought an interesting point to general attention. While I've been following 3D printing for a while, it never really occurred to me that it could make weapons. This is likely because I do metalworking and I could probably make a weapon of sorts out of just about anything, if I wanted to. 3D printing is no different, to me.

But, to someone that doesn't have a shop full of tools, or the experience to use them, then 3D printing does offer some interesting possibilities. First, the idea that it's useless plastic is irrelevant. People will offer mass-produced kits of the metal bits or designs will simply use off-the-shelf components as needed. Not everything has to be made of plastic. Second, there is the idea of downloading a plan that essentially converts a purchasable item into something entirely different, and possibly far more lethal. For example, a simple non-restricted shotgun could be outfitted with plastic components that turned it into a fully-automatic high-capacity killing machine. All it would take is a plastic drum magazine and a different trigger mechanism. Stuff that could be easily 3D printed. And, finally, we are approaching the point where home maker-bots (3D printers) will be able to make nearly all the components for home maker-bots. In other words, they will become somewhat self-replicating. For the price of the plastic, you could make the parts for 2 friends, and so on. 3D printing will get better and cheaper until anyone with the space and interest will have one for next to nothing.

3D printers will be cheap for someone like me, interested in the technology, or your average homicidal maniac bent on making the latest down-loadable 3D super-weapon plan... hypothetically, maybe something like a 12-barrel acetylene-fueled potato-gun inspired nail-hurtling 400 shots per minute chain-gun. All you'd need is the pipe from some Home Depot lawn furniture, a few coils of framing nails, and 12 kilos of plastic for the printer (yes, it's just a silly example). Stuff like this is coming. Don't count on silly laws preventing people from sharing the plans.
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Urban Survivor
Well, since uneducated Afganis have been been making perfect replicas of AK-47's out old skids and car parts in grungy sheds and garages for years, (and for years prior making perfect replicas of Lee-Enfields, or any other weapon available), I am not too concerned with any government intervention attempting to limit my access to a firearm.

The original "Liberator" was a disposable one-shot .45 pistol air-dropped by the 100's over France, meant to assassinate a single German soldier, so that you could then take his proper rifle, and ammunition.

I am not sure of the reliability of a plastic weapon, but who can say where the technology will go. Presumably case-less bullets would best stand up to the rigors of modern firearms.
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Urban Survivor
A real (positive) use of this device of course is for any planned Moon, or Mars mission. It would be essential to replicate parts, or other heavy equipment, bulk being detrimental to their transportation.

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Mike Sherrard
I have worked with these 3D printers and the process is far too slow to challenge the mass produced gear at Walmart. It also provides only a fraction of the strength of the same injection moulded resin. God help the liberation army armed with "Liberators".

It is great for one-offs like mock-ups and tooling, as someone else mentioned. Or for single use acts of terror.
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