3D printer technology is the stuff of Sci-Fi, allowing complicated products to be built up layer-by-layer. While research is still underway both to improve practical problems and increase the range of materials that can be printed with, the technology is already out there and being used on a daily basis.
At the very top end, machines exist and work in a way very similar to a standard 2D laserjet printer, adding very small quantities of powder to an area and fusing them in place with a laser. This version of the technology allows for metals and very strong plastic structures to be created, although currently at very limited sizes and over a number of hours or even days. At the other end of the scale, weaker plastics and plasters can be placed down in a liquid “blob” form and allowed to set. While these machines are considerably cheaper (often under £1000), the final products are often not as intricate and definitely not as strong.
This article suggests one of the most exciting possible applications for this technology, providing one more step along the road towards Mars (or even revisiting the Moon). Closer to home, 3D printers provide a much greater degree of flexibility to industrial production of a wide range of materials – while today it would take a significant amount of time to alter a production process from one component to another, with a suite of 3D printers installed, it is simply a case of loading up a different, pre-installed program and pressing “Go”.
Unfortunately, as with most things, there is a down side to this technology as well. A Texan student has recently been arrested as a result of his attempts to design and distribute via the internet a handgun that can be printed. While there are significant flaws in his stated aims – he claims people will be able to print the gun on entry-level machines, which, given the materials these printers use, would probably cause more harm to the people firing the guns than the intended victims – the possibility of doing exactly this on a small scale cannot be far away.
Even in the USA where gun ownership is considered a fundamental right by many, restrictions and limits have long been enforced and any attempts to get around these regulations are going to be stamped down on. The limited number of 3D printers capable of producing a working pistol (let alone anything worse) makes this relatively enforceable at the moment, but if the technology takes off, this could become a more common story. Police so far have stated they will attempt to have any schematics instantly removed from the internet, but recent battles over music, video and software downloading websites have demonstrated that this simply doesn’t work in real life.
There is not necessarily an easy solution to this problem, but the benefits of 3D printer technology can’t be ignored either. It must be tempting to instantly attempt to restrict sales and monitor use of these machines, but the scope of that project would be incredibly wasteful. Anyone attempting to purchase and stockpile weapons should be found and prosecuted, regardless of where the illegal items came from or what technology produced them.