Wednesday, 8 May 2013

3D printer

It won't herald an age of widespread
weapon ownership, but it does
illustrate the impact these printers
will have on our lives
• Gun owners: do you feel
Guardian screengrab: Cody Wilson
fires a gun madeby 3D printer in
Austin, Texas. 3-D 3 D Photograph:
Alex Hern
The world's first gun made almost
entirely with a 3D printer has been
successfully fired in the US. But it's
not going to herald an age of
widespread weapon ownership, and
it's certainly not proof that 3D
printing technology needs to be
controlled for our safety.
The gun – called the "Liberator" and
produced by Defense Distributed , a
group that describes itself as aiming
to "defend the civil liberty of popular
access to arms" through "information
and knowledge related to the 3D
printing of arms" – is the second to
have made the headlines in the past
year. In July, an American gunsmith
printed the lower receiver for an
, a type of modular assault rifle
popular among enthusiast. Although
not capable of firing on its own, the
part is the only component legally
considered a firearm in the US, so
the rest of the gun – the barrel,
trigger, cartridge and so on – could
be bought without a licence.
The Liberator is a more serious
prospect. All of the necessary parts
can be printed from a 3D printer
except for the metal firing pin , which
is made from a single nail. (In order
to comply with US laws, the gun as
produced also has a 175g chunk of
steel inside it, so that it doesn't
evade metal detectors). It is a
fullblown gun, and recognisably so.
But technologically, it's still simple.
That's because the principle behind a
gun isn't too tricky: load a bullet into
a reinforced tube, and whack the
back of it hard. That's an engineering
problem street gangs in the 1950s
managed to solve with wood,
antenna housings and elastic bands,
building "zip guns" to shoot at each
other; and it's also the basis for
converted air rifles and cap guns. The
difficult stuff – getting it to fire
accurately, repeatedly and without
jamming or blowing up in your face –
is still a long way off for 3D printers.
And even the best 3D-printed gun
still relies on someone else to make
the gunpowder.
The fuss around the printing of guns
shows the real impact 3D printing
will have on our daily lives. By
expanding the realm of "digital"
goods into the physical world, it
extends the questions we've been
struggling with when it comes to the
internet – how to control the
instructions for hacking copy-
protection, encrypting files or making
bombs (those last instructions
apparently followed by the Tsarnaev
brothers in Boston to lethal effect) –
to a whole new area.
The wargaming company Games
Workshop has to come to terms with
3D printing of its miniatures
in the same way that Paramount
Pictures and Warner Music Group are
starting to acknowledge that a certain
level of piracy will always be
While there are downsides for some,
others benefit greatly. Initiatives like
Project Gutenberg or Google's plan to
scan every out-of-print book in the
English language have vastly
increased the proportion of human
knowledge available to the average
person; and if you're struggling to
refurbish a century-old car
, the fact that the company that
made it hasn't existed for 30 years
will no longer stop you from being
able to print off the right part to get
it running again.
Ultimately, trying to pin down
whether 3D printing is good or bad is
like trying to answer the same
question for the internet, telephones
or the postal service. Some
livelihoods will be transformed,
others ruined; the only constant will
be the change it brings.

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