The sixth radio column for my new series on CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning. This one is a discussion with Giacomo Panico on the state of 3d printing and the risks it poses.
Today you can download a design file, send it to print, and assemble the resulting pieces into a working firearm.
A recent US court ruling is trying to make this process harder by blocking Defense Distributed from hosting the design file on their site. Despite this move, it’s already too late. The design file is freely available online via several easily located sites.
What does this mean within the context of our communities?
Ironically, this drama is playing out in the United States, a country with a uniquely permissive view on firearms. This has shifted the case towards an issue of free speech, not gun control.
In other countries with severe restrictions on firearms—like the UK, Japan, or Canada—this use of 3D printing technology is a new avenue to access weapons that previous were only available restricted and controlled channels (assuming a legal purchase).
The good news? Printing a weapon is already illegal in these countries. Current legislation in these countries restricts not just the distribution but also the manufacturing of firearms.
Regardless of what happens with the Defence Distributed case, guns won’t be flying off the printers.
It takes hours and hours to print the necessary parts. After assembly, the end result if not very resilient. It’s a gun that’s only capable fo firing a limited number of shots (usually under 10). The final firearm simple isn’t strong enough to withstand the extreme pressures generated when firing a bullet.
Sadly, one shot is more than enough to make this an issue worth exploring and discussing. Because when it comes to 3D printing, firearms are only the tip of the iceberg.
What is 3D Printing?
In order to explore the associated issues, we first need to understand what 3D printing is and how it’s advanced in recent years.
The first 3D printer came to light in the early 1980’s. These first prototypes were crude but they provides a valuable point: there is a future in additive manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing refers to the method that 3D printers use to create objects. They print extremely thin layer after layer gradually forming a new object.
This is in stark contrast to traditional manufacturing which is typically subtractive or via injection molding. In subtractive manufacturing, raw material is reduced to create a final object. Injection molding using a 3D mold that is filled with the raw material, cured, and the final part removed.
Both subtractive manufacturing and injection molding have been wildly successful but also restrict what objects can be created. There are limits to the techniques.
3D printing offers an alternative that opens up new designs and possibilities based on the additive process.
Despite the advantages of additive manufacturing there are several critical drawbacks. 3D printing is slow. Think hours or days, not the seconds you’re used to with paper printing.
Available materials are also very limited. Basic plastic and metals (for some high-end 3D printers) are the only materials currently in common use. This limits the utility of the objects that can be printed.
Additionally the layering method used creates some structural challenges with printed objects. Unless precautions are taken in the design, objects tend to have lateral weaknesses. Top to bottom, the objects are much stronger than side-to-side.
For current uses, this often isn’t an issue but as 3D printing becomes more common, it may be crucial for some use cases.
3D printing is still in it’s infancy. Current uses lean more towards knick knacks, proof of concepts, or prototypes for more traditional manufacturing.
The potential for on-demand uses is staggering.
A common success story cited is that of prosthetics. Doctors and engineers have collaborated on creating a simple plastic hand for amputees that is extremely effective for children. This low cost solution allows a child to print new hands as they grow making sure they always have the proper fit.
Printing to suit the patient also has applications in casts, places, and a host of other medical scenarios…and that’s without exploring the realm of bio-printing.
Construction is another opportunity for 3D printing. Quickly creating a low cost building on-demand has many uses including disaster relief.
3D printing will make inroads in any area where customized, low volume objects are needed. As the technology improves, the opportunities will increase.
Despite obvious issues like printing firearms, there are deeper challenges with how the technology will be used in our communities.
The legalities of 3D printing will pose a significant challenge. Copyright, patents, and trademarks were not designed for a world in which you can print real world objects on demand.
Existing case law involves only scenarios where there is a significant barrier to entry for manufacturing. This has reduces the number of examples of issues related to manufacturing and ensured that the issue that have been argued in court typically involve organizations with resources.
3D printing removes these barriers to entries and will example the legal questions to a new community.
A cynic would support Cory Doctorow’s view presented in his 2010 novel, “Makers”. Corporations charge for every print and lock down the technology to enforce this business models.
While the interpretation is extreme, there is precedent. Just try to photocopy a dollar bill—but don’t actually, that’s illegal—on any photocopier or even scan one into Photoshop. It won’t work.
The legal challenges will sort themselves out over time on a case-by-case basis but it will not be a smooth process.
A more immediate concern is that of quality and safety with the printed objects themselves.
A number of categories of manufacturing are regulated globally. Vehicles, medical devices, products that interact with food, clothing, and countless others are required to meet set standards in the countries where they are sold.
How does this system transition to a world where 3D printers are widespread and a viable alternative to purchasing traditionally manufactured items?
The past decade has seen significant advancements in the technologies around 3D printer. While the specifics will change, we know that 3D printing will get faster, more versatile, and more reliable. Quickly.
It will be tempting to print a new part for you car at home vs. the significant cost of a manufacturers original.
But will that new part hold up to a collision? How will you be able to tell?
If you are printing items to server or work with food, is the plastic safe? Are the surfaces of the objects smooth enough not to hide bacteria despite being washed between uses?
Will 3D printed closes meet the current requirements for flame retardants? Are the materials safe for prolonged exposure to child?
There are many unanswered questions. Worse, there are many questions that have already been answered that are not being asked in this new context.
3D printing opens up new and exciting possibilities. There is no doubt that the technology has great promise.
The challenge is understanding the best conditions for it’s use. Given how strongly regulated and safety focused current manufacturing is, there is a lot of work to be done to bridge our current manufacturing landscape with the potential 3D printing brings.
That work starts with awareness and discussion…and that’s the one positive aspect of the Defence Distributed case.