A 25-year-old Texas law school student has answered President Barack Obama's call for a revolution in American manufacturing.
Cody Wilson uses a clip of the president's State of the Union address in a pitch for money for his venture: to produce a gun using 3-D printing and make the design available for free online.
"A revolution means a revolution. Let's get to work," says a deadly serious Mr. Wilson on a video available at www.defcad.com.
Named one of the world's 15 most dangerous people by Wired magazine, Mr. Wilson believes 3-D printing can only be subversive if it allows the masses to get around "the collusive members of the maker community" and make the important things -- "not trinkets, not lawn gnomes," but medical devices, drugs and guns.
Defense Distributed, Mr. Wilson's nonprofit, has successfully produced and fired the Liberator and posted the design for the plastic gun online. Last week, the U.S. State Department told Mr. Wilson to remove the data from his website until he proves his activities have not violated weapons export laws.
But the long arm of the law is only so long. Liberator blueprints were downloaded more than 100,000 times before the State Department's request and remain available online by other means.
Welcome to the brave new world.
Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., notwithstanding, Mr. Wilson's ominous initiative will not dull enthusiasm over 3-D printing. The technology enables manufacturers to use easily shared digital designs to make parts from plastic, metals and other materials. Some have called it the harbinger of the next industrial revolution because it reduces the time to develop and test prototypes; eliminates costly and time-consuming steps involved in conventional manufacturing; and enables manufacturers to efficiently customize products.
The technology involves slicing digital images of a product into hundreds or thousands of layers the width of a human hair and sending the data to a printer. Like a printer that spews out ink, 3-D printers emit plastic, metals or other materials into a box. What emerges is a physical version of the digital image.
3-D printing has been used to make everything from plastic cups and action figures, to medical devices such as hearing aids and prosthetic hip joints, to industrial components used in the automotive and energy businesses.
Homemade guns are one of the technology's next frontiers.
One of 3-D printing's attractions is that once printers become as affordable as other household electronics, consumers will be able to print their own items, whether it be clothes, lawn gnomes or guns.
To that end, office products retailer Staples announced this month that it will sell a 3-D printer made by 3D Systems [DDD] online and at a limited number of its stores by the end of June. The printer retails for $1,299.99 and can be used to make a variety of plastic products including earrings, mugs, dog toys, phone cases and shoes.
Last fall, MakerBot, a New York company that makes desktop 3-D printers, opened a store in that city. Its desktop Replicator 2 model sells for $2,199.
Retailers aren't the only ones promoting 3-D printing for the masses. Investor enthusiasm over 3-D stocks knows few bounds.
Since ExOne [ticker: XONE], a 3-D printer based in North Huntingdon, went public in February, its shares have more than doubled. They closed Friday at $42.06, up $3.73 for the week. ExOne targets industrial companies such as BMW, Ford, Boeing and Caterpillar. In addition to making printers that produce large metal parts, the company makes parts for customers who do not have printers.
This week, 3D Systems expects to close on a secondary offering of 6.2 million shares that will raise nearly $250 million. The Rock Hill, S.C., company, which has made more than 30 acquisitions since mid-2009, plans to use the proceeds for new acquisitions and other purposes.
Enthusiasm brings challenges, a dilemma that Mr. Wilson's Liberator illustrates. He did get the federal firearms license needed to produce the weapon. Last fall, before he got the license, Stratasys [SSYS], the 3-D company that had leased him one of its printers, asked for it back.
"It is the policy of Stratasys not to knowingly allow its printers to be used for illegal purposes," the company wrote.
So Mr. Wilson bought another printer, using funds that Defense Distributed raised online.
U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., wants to prohibit production of homemade 3-D guns and magazines, saying, "Background checks and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print high-capacity magazines at home."
So far, all Mr. Wilson has done is highlight a troublesome aspect of this promising technology. That's what he set out to do.
You can find this statement on his website: "How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the Internet? Let's find out."
For better and for worse, the genie is out of the bottle.
Len Boselovic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1941.