Revolution micron by micron


In the current age of connected living, many American households have a printer connected to a computer. Sometimes these printers also have scanning and fax capabilities. Sometimes they print in color. Sometimes they’re just black and white.

Technology being what it is, the fetter of two-dimensional printing (i.e. printing flat words on a flat sheet) was just too oppressive for some engineers to take. As a result, consumers now have access to a whole other dimension of printing. Enter 3D printing.

It sounds like science fiction. A few years ago it was science fiction, but owing to advances in technology, consumers can now purchase a tabletop machine that will “print” small objects using a number of materials. Nylon, ceramic and soft metals are the most common.

While the process is extremely complex, the basic concept is simple. Instead of depositing successive layers of ink, the printers deposit successive layers (at 50 microns thick — 1/20th of a millimeter) onto a platform that lowers as layers rise from it. This represents a major breakthrough in almost every field of research or industry.

In the May issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Elizabeth Royte reports on her visit to the 3D Systems’ plant in Rock Hill, South Carolina. As she notes, the printers made by this company are being used to make everything from bone scaffolds to new ear and nose tissue to automobile engine parts to cellphone cases and human liver tissues. This last item, liver tissues, doesn’t use plastic or metal but “printed” cells. Again, it just sounds like fiction — but it’s not.

One of the other things that hobbyists are now making displeases a lot of folks — printer makers especially — guns. Specifically, 3D printers are being used by a small group of hobbyists to print the lower receiver for weapons like the AR-15 rifle.

In 2012, a gun enthusiast, Cody Wilson, launched the Weapons Wiki, an online forum for the dissemination of 3D schematics and software files to help people print gun parts.

According to a Wired.com report on the subject, Makerbot Industries, one of the largest 3D printer manufacturers decided it didn’t want to deal in arms (in their terms of agreement they write explicitly that users will not do anything that “promotes illegal activities or contributes to the creation of weapons”) and purged all the gun files. In response, Wilson set up his wiki — and an online store (http://defcad.org).

Wilson’s activities evoke a predictable question: Just because we can, should we? Moreover, does doing so break existing laws? Does this technology mean we need new laws?

It bears mentioning that the aforementioned AR-15 lower receiver only survived firing six rounds before it shattered. It also bears mentioning that any one of those rounds could have been lethal.

The fact that this iteration of technology doesn’t permit durable homemade guns is just a matter of material refinement, not ethics. The latter is of much more consequent. Again, just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

A decade ago, 3D printers cost $100,000. Today one can be had for under $1,300. Then again, one could buy sufficient milling equipment to fabricate the same gun parts at a similar price. The difference between the two technologies is mainly the skill necessary to operate the machine. Highly trained machinists would find making gun receivers to be challenging. A tech-savvy 13 year-old could turn out a receiver on his garage Makerbot.

In his most recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared that 3-D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost anything.”

He’s right about that. We need to think long and hard about the contours of that revolution.