3D Printing is heralding an alleged revolution and depending on who you talk to it's not all good news.
Pretty much the moment 3D Printers could be bought for the home people were talking about the possibilities of 3D printed weapons and most worryingly of all 3D Printer Firearms. With the US State Department demanding the removal of the designs and Kim Dotcom having pulled them from download site Megaupload should we be worried?
The truth is that the idea of a fully functional non metallica Firearm is nothing new. The ceramic Glock 17 has been around for decades and the idea of a homemade pistol created from moulded resin composite was made famous by John Malkovich "In the Line of Fire" back in 1993. So nothing new but but should we be afraid of armies of people sneaking weapons into secure areas or using them to hijack aircraft? Honestly, no more than usual, having seen "the Liberator" in action the weapon is a .22 rimfire single shot pistol; with such a limited calibre, single shot capacity, slow reloading and likelihood of catastrophic failure means that your average terrorist will likely stick with home cooked explosives, or simply paying/threatening someone to sneak automatic weapons somewhere convenient.
While technology may well improve over time earlier experiments with 3D printed components for rifles have had a VERY short life as the laminated structures can't handle the forces involved. Wired showed us earlier such conponents in action and the limitations of 3D printing have been brought to light by people who actively work at the cutting edge of the medium. The more serious issue, and the one of greater concern to law enforcement, is that 3D printing will make firearms more easily available. There are many possible answers to this problem, including people asking about 3D printed body armour, but, imo, a more sensible option is the greater control over cost and availability of ammunition. After all without a bullet a handgun is just an fancy looking lump of metal and plastic, and better bullet control is something that has being advocated in the recent US gun control debate and also by stand-up comedian Chris Rock (NSFW Language Warning). This is especially true since body armour is typically made from woven Kevlar or hard ceramic plates, neither of which are likely to be found on a 3D printer any time soon.
The truth here is that the law, as in so many areas of society, is struggling to keep up with the pace of social and technological change. A globe spanning digital world, with transnational companies, instant online commerce is pushing us closer to a world where legal issues will need to be considered on a world rather than national scale. The facts highlighted by 3D printed guns is that we need better health care for those with mental health issues and to better educate ourselves about the dangers all around us. While 3D printed guns are dangerous there have and always will be ways to do others harm be it cars, knives, martial arts or harsh language. With the 3D printer being used to create the liberator costing $8000, having seen video where users of cheaper printers are struggling to reproduce the results, and 3D printed guns likely to struggle to handle anything above a .22 round we can likely sleep a little saver by looking a little closer at this news story. The bigger revolution here is likely to be far more in terms of law rather than manufacturing, but that is a revolution we look for everyday and have for a long time.