Our 3D Printed Future
Digital fabrication, DIY weapons, & 21st century security challengesBy Mark Tallman | Sep 5, 2017
In this installment on technology, crime, and DIY weapons, we’ll examine the status of “3D printed” guns. In my own research, I found that the criminal implications are still largely over-hyped. However, 3D printed guns are improving, and they will eventually appeal for crime under some (comparatively limited) circumstances.i
In a more general sense, printable guns are one of the first issues to invite serious discussion about the security impacts of 3D printing, digital fabrication, and the “4th Industrial Revolution.” Klaus Schwab, Chairman of the World Economic Forum, forecasted that the 4th Industrial Revolution would “profoundly impact the nature of national and international security.”ii
Will digital fabrication really change the game so dramatically?
The Revolution Is Already Here
Despite the early buzz around 3D printing, we’re still far from the Star Trek replicator. Digital fabrication still requires some traditional machining and workshop skill, and the operator must know how to calibrate digital tools, finish components, and assemble the desired object. Nevertheless, digital tools do increasingly enable independent users to make items that previously required master artisanal skills or an industrial assembly line.
Digital tools make manufacturing tasks increasingly transferrable across time and space. Two equally skilled machinists with identical digital tools, materials, software, design files, or paper schematics, should be able to precisely reproduce the same object from any location using digital “computer numeric control,” or “CNC” tools.
Digital fabrication also includes revolutionary “additive” principles. This is the much-hyped “3D printing” you’ve heard about. Instead of cutting away raw materials, a 3D printer precisely constructs objects using techniques like extruding semi-liquid plastics through digitally-controlled nozzles, or using lasers to solidify powdered metal alloys.
In short, the ability to make industry-quality stuff is trickling down to smaller and more independent parties. Researchers and engineers are constantly improving the technology, while hackers and businesspeople are constantly making it more useful and accessible.
What About 3D Printed Guns?
The criminal appeal of 3D printed guns is still somewhat exaggerated. The clearer breakthrough is the increased availability of digital CNC machines and conventional shop tools, combined with relevant information in the form of books, schematics, video tutorials, DIY gun-making manuals, and digital manufacturing files. Most of these tools and publications are legal,iii and should generally remain so. As with so many other legal tools and products, criminals will always find ways to apply them illegally.
This was already possible before 3D printers, and even crude metal guns can be more useful for criminal purposes than a 3D printed plastic gun. Cartels, militias, and organized crime know this, and—as far as we know—they’ve only 3D printed guns on an experimental basis. The most sophisticated 3D printers are capable of producing high-quality metal firearms that will flawlessly cycle thousands of rounds. However, the equipment needed to print a high-end metal firearm is still too expensive, bulky, and power-hungry for clandestine use in the near-term.
Accessible plastic guns have gotten more of the attention since hobby engineers and libertarian provocateurs began experimenting a few years ago. It’s very difficult to prevent a knowledgeable actor from printing a plastic firearm, but their criminal appeal is limited by the materials available for home users.iv ABS and PLA plastics are common, but they’re not ideal for a firearm that must handle the pressures of modern cartridges.
Clever DIYers have devised workarounds. DIYers have learned to run the “grain” of the plastic to accommodate greater pressure. Many plastic handguns are chambered in .380 or .22. Lower power loads are a compromise to the limitations in materials. Some primitive plastic designs require frequent barrel replacement. Other designs have semi-auto capability, but plastic components melt with repeat fire. There has been some innovation with printable plastic revolvers and multi-shot derringers. Some of the designs are clever. This one even has a drop safety.
Some designs combine printed plastic or CNC-milled metal receivers with conventional metal parts. These hybrid designs allow for DIY production of the receiver, but additional industry-made parts improve the final product. Other plastic designs address the physical stresses with metal chamber or barrel inserts. Some metal-plastic hybrid guns can handle thousands of rounds before failure, and popular metal receiver builds are nearly as good as name-brand.
These designs are interesting because they include the first reasonably functional, 3D-printable, repeating plastic handguns. They also illustrate the difficulty of controlling the 3D printing supply chain: if your first instinct is to control these things by controlling the printers, you’re probably too late. Plastic printers are available in retail stores, and they can be stolen and hacked. You can even make the printer at home, then make a gun with the printer. The material is also impossible to control: printable plastics are omnipresent. Savvy 3D printing enthusiasts can even recycle garbage to make new items.
Eventually, innovation will shift to better materials. Consumer-grade kevlar, carbon fiber, multi-material, and metal alloy printers are improving. A university research team even released designs for a metal printer that can be built from common items for less than $2000. These tools won’t produce a deluge of illegal 3D printed guns anytime soon,v but these materials will be well-suited to innovation in printable firearms. Hobbyists and hackers are also exploring new ways to build and customize ammunition. One type of DIY ammunition is designed to contain pressures so it can be used in un-reinforced plastic firearms. Others are working on 3D printable ammunition.vi
It’s Not the Guns, It’s What They Foreshadow
3D printable firearms have lots of interesting implications. We’ll cover more in future posts. Yet, the most important implication of 3D printed guns isn’t even the guns themselves. Rather, it’s the technical, legal, and enforcement boundaries they cross. 3D printed guns are a 21st century canary in the coal mine: they are an early manifestation of the wider security challenges that the “4th Industrial Revolution” will bring us.
And digital fabrication is only one tool in an expansive “open source” toolbox. Lesser-hyped technologies (like open source hardware kits and software packages) provide all kinds of neat capabilities. With decent skill at 3D printing, CNC, open source hardware and software, and conventional shop work, it is possible to make objects much more sophisticated than any firearm.
People have been building all sorts of stuff. A precocious American student got attention for weaponizing aerial drones. ISIS assembles their own aerial drones now, using them to drop fragmentation grenades and improvised munitions. Eventually, digital fabrication will make it easier for militias to build IEDs, shaped munitions, remote detonators, mortars, and other light weapons. Some clever DIYers are designing 3D printable grenades. Drug traffickers already operate their own submarines, tunnels, telecom networks, and drones. Hackers will soon be able to convert normal cars into self-driving, autonomous, and remotely-piloted vehicles. Digital tools may prove a boon for scammers, product counterfeiters, and art forgers.
It’s becoming easier to make stuff. We’re just starting to understand the implications, but we know it will pose new challenges for policing and security. It’s one thing to pass laws criminalizing unlicensed production of guns, or copying master keys, or counterfeiting luxury goods, or building weaponized autonomous drones. It’s another thing to enforce these regulations when the prerequisite equipment, materials, skills, and information become well-embedded in the larger economy.
Education on digital fabrication and “open source” technology will (and absolutely should) become a cornerstone of America’s long-term strategy in science, industry, and innovation. The “4th Industrial Revolution” is here to stay, and it’s important to acknowledge its many incredible benefits even as small numbers of malicious actors leverage the technology for harmful purposes.
LEOs, researchers, and security professionals must pay attention, and try to anticipate how new tools will be put to criminal use. Likewise, legislators, legal scholars, engineers, ethicists, media, business people, and the wider public must ultimately decide which measures would be realistic (and acceptable), to address the inevitable criminal uses of these amazing new technologies.
i To be discussed in future columns and author’s upcoming book on DIY weapons. In the meantime, forgive the shameless promotion of this blog about DIY weapons, security, and the “4th Industrial Revolution.”
ii Klaus Schwab, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means, How to Respond,” Foreign Affairs, December 12, 2015
iii In the US, 1st Amendment law protects speech and information about legal activities. 2nd Amendment law covers DIY gun making as a legal activity, provided the maker is qualified to possess firearms, and the DIY firearms are made for non-commercial purposes. The legal issues around 3D printable firearm files are more complex. We’ll cover that in future posts.
iv And by the availability of “conventional” black market guns as an alternative.
v At least, not in the United States, but perhaps in some other countries. More on this issue in future posts.
vi Except for propellants and primers, which can be purchased legally in many countries, or hacked at home with sufficient chemistry skill and insufficient concern for personal safety.
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