Issue: Volume 36 Issue 4: (May/June 2013)

High-tech Weaponry

By: Karen Moltenbrey
Karen

No matter if you are Republican, Democrat, or Independent, you likely have a strong opinion concerning gun legislation. Lately, the topic has hit close to our industry.

Since the mid-1980s, stereolithography has been used to produce models and prototypes in manufacturing. In the past few years, 3D printing has found its way into the mass market. As a result, small companies as well as hobbyists are using personal 3D printers from the likes of MakerBot and others. As a result, we are seeing users creating everything from jewelry to toys (see “Consolidation in the Digital-Reality Industry,” January/February 2013).

As one might expect, the darker side of putting complex technology into the hands of the masses has surfaced, as well. Back in December, an episode of CSI revolved around a crime committed with a 3D-printed gun, which made it unique, untraceable, and disposable. (Alas, the culprit in TV land eventually was caught.)

In the spirit of art imitating real life, last summer a gun enthusiast used an older-model Stratasys 3D printer to reproduce parts of a firearm. Plastic printed pieces were assembled with professionally produced parts to create a .22 caliber pistol that the person claimed to have worked.

He is not alone in this endeavor. Defense Distributed's Wiki Weapon Project aims to create a 3D-printable gun that can fire a bullet; it also wants to freely share the information about how to do this by offering up the vital schematics. Printing in 3D is a relatively simple but complex process. The CAD files needed for output have to be exact, just as they are from a typical gun maker or the results can be catastrophic. And although there is a wide variety of output material now used by 3D printers, finding one that can withstand the discharge has been difficult to overcome. Like most entrepreneurs today, those behind the Defense Distributed organization looked to crowd funding to cover their start-up costs. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the current temperature of the hot-button gun debate sweeping the country, they got their project funded and used the $20,000 to lease a Stratasys machine last fall. Once Stratasys discovered the plan, the company, citing legal issues, took back the printer. As a side note, heading up Defense Distributed is Cody Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas.

Earlier this month, Defense Distributed made headlines by successfully testing the weapon at a firing range in Texas. Reports are that it began live-firing test components late last year. According to the group’s website, it has printed a receiver (basically the gun frame) for the AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle and a magazine for it as well as an AK-47. In addition, the organization is offering the STL files for printing the Liberator .380 single-shot pistol. Foreseeing trouble on the horizon, in December, MakerBot removed firearms-type files from its Thingiverse.com site, where users can share digital designs for making real objects. However, Defense Distributed created its own site for such files. “This site is a makeshift response to MakerBot Industries’ decision to censor files uploaded in good faith at Thingiverse, specifically firearms-related files. We are hosting as many of the pulled files as we can find,” the page states. A link to the group’s “manifesto” pulls up “Areopagitica,” a speech of John Milton about the liberty of unlicensed printing.

The fictional CSI investigators solved the crime involving the use of 3D printing for criminal purposes. And while supporters of Defense Distributed (and others) say they are supporting their right to print guns and all other kinds of 3D models, you can bet there are those on the other side of the law looking at how they can use the technology for less-than-noble purposes. 

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