Will 3D printing have to be regulated?

With a Wiki Weapon project afoot to share files for printing guns, this burgeoning technology could draw the attention of regulators.

The other week I blogged about how users working with emerging 3D printing technology were rapidly changing the landscape. In a few years, 3D printing may no longer just be a cool hobbyist trend, but a bona fide science that could really help out government. Putting a 3D printer in key offices means simply printing out whatever tool, part or object is needed, as it’s required.

However, some people are taking 3D printing to the extreme and are printing out rifles and other weapons.  I predicted, as silly as it sounds, that the government may need to take an interest in 3D printing, perhaps adding safeguards to this new generation of printers in the same way it does to regular 2D printers to prevent counterfeiting or other misuse.

It seems companies that make 3D printers may be thinking along the same lines. This week, Stratasys, which makes very high-end 3D printers, confiscated a 3D printer from a man named Cody Wilson, despite the fact that he had leased it for $20,000, not a small sum for an emerging tech company to earn.

Wilson’s offense? He leads the Wiki Weapon project, which aims to create user-tradable specifications for creating firearms. If Wilson’s team successfully creates designs for working guns and then freely gives them away, it would enable almost any 3D printer to create a firearm. Users would just need to download the file and print the gun out.

Some people are ahead of Wilson and his team, already creating working weapons on 3D printers that were successfully tested at a firing range.

Stratasys’s move to take back its printer will slow, but not stop, people from exploring extreme 3D printing. Wilson, who raised $20,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, has vowed to continue. And Stratasys does not control the entire market.

The government already works with 2D printer companies to restrict certain kinds of printing. Xerox and HP printers add tiny, hard-to-see yellow spots onto pages that identify the serial number and make of a printer, which can help prosecutors in counterfeiting cases.

It would not be a stretch to think that the government will step in and force 3D printer makers to do something similar. Given the free and independent nature of the 3D printer community, regulation would probably not be welcome. But it may come nonetheless, and I’m not so sure it would be a bad thing.

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