Weapons: The dark side of 3D printing

Posted on 26 Oct 2018 by Maddy White

3D printing is enabling some extraordinary things. In some cases, life-saving. In others, world-changing. But, there is a darker side to 3D printing, one which could see the proliferation of weapons.

A 'Liberator' 3D printed gun. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Guns, counterfeits and other weapons can, and have been 3D printed – image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Guns, counterfeit goods and other weapons can, and have been 3D printed.

If anyone has access to the digital design of a weapon, say a gun, and a 3D printer, then there is nothing to stop them – apart from their conscience – from creating many, many guns. This, potentially a huge big problem.

That’s mightily far-fetched and never going to happen though, right? 3D printers are expensive and using them for this purpose is let’s be honest, not common.

But, 3D printing’s popularity has skyrocketed, – it’s being used to fix the environment, transform the medical industry and even potentially solve the global millennial housing crisis – it is becoming an increasingly mainstream mass production method.

Of course, UK firearm laws are strict. A firearms certificate is required to purchase firearms, and a separate shotgun certificate is required for shotguns. With many firearms, like semi-automatic guns, prohibited.

Across the pond, it is a little different. Under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, the right to keep and bear arms is protected. Gun law is – and rightly so – an extremely controversial and contested topic in America, because of the impact guns have – the amount of people that are killed by them.

In England and Wales in 2016-17, there was 31 fatal shootings, according to the Office for National Statistics. Comparatively, in the US in 2015, there was almost 13,000 murders or manslaughters involving a firearm, according to the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention).

Buying gun blueprints online

Defense Distributed is an online, open-source hardware organisation based in the US that develops digital designs of firearms in CAD files, these may then be downloaded from the internet and used in 3D printing or CNC milling applications.

Founded by Cody Wilson in 2012, who has since resigned, the company has been in a legal battle with US government to remove these files from the public domain.

3D printed guns are harder to detect than standard guns – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The company, and similar ones like FOSSCAD or GrabCAD, are absurd.

They should never have been able to operate, and they pose a massive risk to not only the American population, but the entire population.

If somebody downloads a CAD file for a specific firearm, then where that file goes is – to an extent – unknown, who it is shared with is unknown.

Wilson was reportedly the creator of the world’s first 3-D printed plastic gun a few years ago, and has without question advanced the dangerous idea that with digital DIY tools, anyone can make a weapon at home.

3D printed guns are also harder to detect than normal guns, as they are generally made of plastic opposed to metal.

It is illegal to download and print guns in the UK and US, but laws are unsurprisingly difficult or even impossible to enforce. This however, does not mean that this is good enough and shouldn’t improve.

Tracking 3D printing guns

Thankfully, research from the University of Buffalo has developed a technology that could potentially help police and intelligence agencies track the origin of 3D printed guns and counterfeit products.

The system, called ‘PrinTracker,’ has been created by engineers and uncovers the unique ‘fingerprints’ of 3D printers, this could help trace weapons and counterfeit goods.

PinTracker could ultimately help intelligence agencies track the origin of 3D-printed guns, counterfeit products and other goods - image courtesy of University of Buffalo.
PinTracker could help intelligence agencies track the origin of 3D printed guns, counterfeit products and other goods – image courtesy of University of Buffalo.

3D printers move back-and-forth while ‘printing’ an object. Instead of ink, like an inkjet printer, a nozzle discharges a filament, such as plastic, in layers until a three-dimensional object forms.

Each layer of a 3D printed object contains tiny wrinkles, usually measured in sub millimeters, these are called in-fill patterns.

These patterns are supposed to be identical. However, the printer’s model type, filament, nozzle size and other factors cause microscopic imperfections in the patterns.

There are slight variations in 3D printed hardware created during the manufacturing process that lead to unique, inevitable and unchangeable patterns in every object they print.

In the test phase of PrinTracker, researchers were able to match objects to their respective 3D printer, 99.8% of the time. 

This technology is of course helpful. Though, not a solution. It doesn’t stop the 3D printed weapon or counterfeit gun being initially made and the blueprints floating around in cyberspace. However, it does potentially prevent more from being produced.

What will happen? 

3D-printed weapons look certain to become more common in the coming years. Companies like Defence Distributed are not likely to be one-offs; weapons are a big market.

The concept of creating open-source CAD files for products that are prohibited to be 3D printed, is a smart and very dangerous one.

PrinTracker could help by matching up goods to their printers, but it doesn’t solve the issue of the open-source digital files potentially floating around on multiple devices in various areas of the world.

Legislation and intelligence agencies needs to crack down on this however hard a task that might be, before it manifests itself in a bigger issue.

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