assault rifle

Politics of gun ownership aside, I thought it would be interesting to address a fascinating (and sometimes frightening) discussion about 3D printing.

3D printers are some of the coolest technology I've seen in a long time. They essentially "print" objects using plastic and allow you to quickly and easily make toys, tools, and spare parts. With a little skill, you could feasibly print almost anything. To be clear, these parts aren't amazingly durable, but they're great for building little projects at home. We have a 3D printer at our house and my son enjoys watching gadgets appear on the build plate.

The problem arises when designers attempt to build "dangerous" stuff. One group called Defense Distributed is trying to build a completely 3D-printed gun. The group hasn't gone very far with their project, but recent videos suggest that we're not very far off from a completely 3D-printed gun.

3D printing is expensive, hard, and fraught with problems. The materials aren't very strong, the process is very complex, and without the right hardware, you're probably not going to be able print much of anything except toys and smaller parts. But, with a little effort, the folks at Defense Distributed have managed to produce a few parts for the popular AR-15 rifle. Yes, that AR-15 rifle.

While I don't want to come down on either side of the gun debate here, I did want to clear up some misconceptions about 3D printers. In short, modern 3D printers that you and I can buy (and afford) cannot print guns. The Makerbot, for example, could be used to build models of parts for a weapon, but the technology is still so nascent that it's almost impossible to see where it will go in the future.

We're going to hear more and more about the dangers of 3D printed weapons. It's still far easier to go out and buy your own gun and many suggest that the political outcry is more about the gun companies protecting their designs and business than tinkerers mucking about with little plastic doodads. The debate should hit the airwaves soon and it's best to understand the limitations -- and dangers -- of this technology.

Tinkering with 3D printers and other gadgetry is fun, educational, and will only get cooler as the technology improves. However, like any technology, we are not facing a backlash motivated by the things we just don't know. Will we be able to print a gun at home someday? Sure. You can build a gun now with the right tools and you don't even need a printer. The real question, then, is when is it too easy to build a weapon? When it becomes a one-button process? When we can Google the plans for a rifle in the morning and build one by lunch?

3D printing is a wonderful new world. We all have to stay informed about the changes afoot and marvel at what a wild and unique tool our kids will control in the next few years.

Do you think this is potentially dangerous?

 

Image via Graf Spee/Flickr