A shot across the bows for 3D printing

Features editor

The recent building of a 3D printed gun capable of firing live ammunition has raised concerns about the uses the technology might be put to, but it’s still important to distinguish between hype and reality.

The first firing of a 3D-printed gun has focused attention on a technology which we, along with the rest of the specialist press, have been talking about for some time.

The gun was made using a standard 3D printer which Texan law student and self-styled ‘crypto-anarchist’ Cody Wilson bought off eBay for $8,000. Wilson heads a group called Defense Distributed, and plans to make the the design for the gun — which contains only one metal part, the firing pin — available on-line. Wilson says that he believes governments should not have the power to decide who can and who cannot own firearms.

As a bunch of metropolitan Brits, it’s difficult for us to suppress the knee-jerk response: the American attitude towards guns remains incomprehensible and inherently worrying to most people in the UK, and anyone who wants a handgun — and especially anyone who wants to make access to handguns easier — is someone to be regarded with utmost suspicion. But it’s worth having a look at this in more detail. What it means for gun control is something for politicians and police to worry about. What does it mean for 3D printing?

Knowing that the technology can be used to build firearms, are there likely to be controls on who can own a 3D printer? Almost certainly not; after all, there aren’t any controls over who can own metalworking tools, and a skilled person can make a much better gun with those than Wilson’s weapon, which wasn’t very accurate and broke after a few firings. Controls over the plans for the weapons would be more likely: these might be monitored in the same way as downloading of ‘terrorist literature’ and ‘bomb-making guides’ are at the moment. And we’re aware of the civil liberties concerns raised by that.

It’s also interesting to look at the gun in the context of 3D printing itself, because as I said above, as a gun, it wasn’t very good. It took Wilson’s group a year to design, and what they came up with took them more effort, time and money to get their hands on than a gun they could have bought over the counter from their local Walmart. It didn’t work as well either.

Is this the reality of 3D printing? Something which takes a lot of time, effort and difficulty to make things that aren’t very good?

Certainly at the level of machines you buy off eBay for a few thousand pounds, that’s the case. When we talk about the ability of 3D printing to usher in a new age of manufacturing, there’s clearly some way to go. We have machines that can make useful things, including surgical implants and components for aerospace and other industries, but those are highly specialised. It’s worth noting that most F1 teams don’t use 3D printers to make components because they can still machine them from solid blocks of metal faster and more easily, and if they have swarf control and recycling then the issue of waste metal isn’t a huge problem.

If we’re talking about 3D printers as a household technology that everyone would have, and would print products out rather than going to the shops and buying them; well, that’s even further off. You can’t even print a toothbrush at the moment, although you could make a washing-up bowl. It would probably be too small to wash a teacup in, though.

Technologies like this develop, and Wilson’s dubious project has raised important concerns. What took him and his friends thousands of dollars and a year’s effort will certainly become easier, quicker and cheaper.

But it’s equally important not to get carried away by hype. What does 3D printing mean for the average person or household? We don’t know. When we write about it, we’re discussing its potential, and we can’t see into the future any more reliably than a science fiction author.