TechMan: 3-D printers can produce homemade guns

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The development of a new technology always has unintended consequences as devices created for one purpose are used in ways never envisioned.

So it is with 3-D printing, also called additive manufacturing.

A 3-D printer makes a three-dimensional solid object from instructions in the form of a digital Computer Aided Design file. The object is created by laying down successive layers of material -- thermoplastics or thermoplastic powder, metal or metal powder, plaster, paper, metal alloys among them.

The process has been in use in industry for years. The difference now is that 3-D printers are becoming cheaper and aimed at the home market. A home 3-D printer costs about $1,000, but with Chinese companies getting involved, that cost could drop to $500.

Theoretically, if you have the right machine, the proper digital instructions and the raw materials, you could make almost anything.

One possibility is to make replacements parts. Everyone has had an incident where a small plastic or metal part has cracked or broken, rendering an entire device inoperable. I have written about a plastic switch in my refrigerator breaking and being without refrigeration for days waiting for the part.

If I had a home 3-D printer and the manufacturer made the instructions for that part downloadable from the Internet, I could have had my cold beverages back in a few hours.

But here comes the unintended consequence part: Among the items a 3-D printer can make is a gun.

This apparently is already going on at an industrial level. Stratasys, an additive manufacturing company, is working with Knight's Armament Company, which makes gun grips and firearms, and Remington Arms, the country's largest producer of shotguns and rifles, to perfect the printing of guns, Wired.com wrote.

And bits.blogs.nytimes.com reported that Cody Wilson, a law student at the University of Texas, is in the process of building a completely functional printed gun that he calls the Wiki Weapon. In a video explaining the project's libertarian goals, he describes the Wiki Weapon as the world's first "3-D printable personal defense system." He said when the digital plans are complete he will post them on his website, Defense Distributed. His plan encountered a roadblock recently when Stratasys got wind of his project and took back the 3-D printer he was leasing from them.

When 3-D printers become household appliances, it will undoubtedly be illegal to post the plans for printing a gun on the Internet. But it also is illegal to post child porn on the Internet and there seems to be plenty of that out there.

Printed guns will be especially nefarious because there will be no background checks, age limits, serial numbers or sales receipts. And a gun printed with a nonmetallic material would be hard to detect.

Of course, homemade guns are nothing new. But printed guns may be much more sophisticated and deadly.

British newspaper The Telegraph reports that amateur gunsmith Michael Guslick created the lower receiver -- part of the housing that hold a firearm's operating parts -- for an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle using a 3-D printer. He combined it with off-the-shelf parts to create a .22-caliber pistol and fired 200 rounds to prove that the 3-D printed component was up to the task.

In the U.S., the lower receiver is the legally controlled part of a firearm and must show a serial number. Creating a replica of that component using 3-D printing would make it easier for people without gun licenses to build a high-quality, unregulated weapon, the Telegraph said.

Just like nuclear technology brought us power plants and the bomb, additive manufacturing could bring us refrigerator parts and the .38 Home Printer Special.

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Read TechMan's blog at post-gazette.com/techman and watch or listen to TechTalk at multimedia.post-gazette.com.


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