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3D printing grows up, can now arm itself

The 3D printing world is still in its infancy, which is kind of cool. There are entire communities of people devoted to this hobby, and it’s a bit of a close-knit society. It kind of reminds me of the ham radio clubs my father used to love.

People who participate in 3D printing create all kinds of interesting devices using computer-aided design programs and then create them in the real world using reams of ABS plastic that feeds the printers. Printer enthusiasts are rated based on their creation skill, and once a design is working, it can be passed around and printed on other 3D printers, just like normal documents. The repository at Thingiverse is probably the biggest place to show off these inventions.

Government has also gotten into the action, with small steps like the portable explosives detector that works with a modified inkjet printer, and bigger efforts such as the Obama administration’s $60 million initiative into researching the technology. And the Army is deploying mobile labs that can 3D-print gear for soldiers in Afghanistan.

So this relatively small cadre of 3D-printing enthusiasts is about to get a lot bigger. In fact, I predict that 3D printing will likely be the next big thing. A showroom for 3D printers just opened up in California, with prices for some models on sale for as low as $600. And someone figured out how to make a working gun on a 3D printer, something that will for sure get the government’s interest.

Until very recently, it was thought that only toys and models could be created on these printers. However, someone figured out that not only is the ABS plastic strong enough to support all the firing pressures associated with a gun but that the weapon could be used over and over again without jamming, melting or otherwise blowing up. If you don’t believe it, here is a video of the printed weapon firing at a range.

Now, just to clarify a few things. The weapon is based on an AR-15, which is a civilian version of the M16. The weapon created on the 3D printer was chambered to fire .22 caliber rounds, which are less powerful and thus less stressful on the weapon than almost all other ammo.

And the weapon in the video only had its lower receiver printed, though the creator says on his blog he plans to go back and print an entire weapon for his next test. And besides, it’s the lower receiver that is actually regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the part that most 3D printing modelers didn’t think could work inside an actual firearm.

I don’t know if the government will suddenly want to start regulating 3D printers now, but it’s a safe bet that the small, hobbyist community of today may be numbered as more people rush into the fold. And the Army’s mobile labs in Afghanistan might soon be able to print out more than just parts and other gear.

Think about how useful this technology could be if it were perfected. Need a tool? Need a weapon? Need a part for a wonky machine? No problem. Just push print. It may not be a replicator like on Star Trek, but it’s a good first step.

Posted by John Breeden II on Sep 24, 2012 at 9:39 AM


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