Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

When Guns and Drugs Are Democratized: Potential Technical Solutions to Counter the Negative Consequences of Three Dimensional Printing

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

When Guns and Drugs Are Democratized: Potential Technical Solutions to Counter the Negative Consequences of Three Dimensional Printing

Article excerpt


The use of three-dimensional (3-D) printers is becoming more pervasive.1 Researchers are revealing new objects that can be created using 3-D printing technology at a rapid pace.2 In addition to inexpensive home-hobbyist printers that are capable of printing a multi-shot automatic gun, very sophisticated 3-D printers capable of printing human organs or military-grade weapons are in production.3

The use of 3-D printing technology may revolutionize how Americans shop, how medicine is manufactured, and how weapons are made. The benefits associated with 3-D printing technology may have far-reaching impacts for all of humanity. The global economy will change positively as 3-D printing becomes more pervasive, altering where and how objects are manufactured, how they are shipped around the world, and how they are distributed. However, similar to the Manhattan Project and the first use of nuclear fission, 3-D printer technology will have negative consequences in the form of weapons that cannot be traced, illicit drug manufacturing, sabotage, and intellectual property theft.

This article will focus on what can be done to limit, through the use of technology, the sinister uses of the 3-D printer. The article is structured to describe briefly how 3-D printing technology functions, how the technology can be used to print objects with negative consequences to society, how policy may be impacted, and how those consequences may be remediated.

A Brief Review of 3-D Printing Technology

"Computer: tea, Earl Grey, hot." With those words, fictional character Jean-Luc Picard introduced the concept of the Replicator on television's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in 1987. Today, modern 3-D printing technology is beginning to realize the concept first envisioned by science fiction.

3-D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is also known,4 refers to the production of a three-dimensional object through the layer-by-layer addition of material according to a geometric computer model.5 The original patents for the technology date back to the late 1980s with numerous follow-on patents added as new materials and techniques were developed. 3-D printing is different than other forms of manufacturing that require either the removal or alteration, e.g., molding or extruding, of material to produce a completed object.6

An example of how 3-D printing creates an assembled product as opposed to a set of parts that still require assembly was described by McNulty, Arnas, and Campbell in Defense Horizons:

Instead of using cutting tools to machine desired shapes from blocks of metal and then assembling those parts into a completed tool, a 3-D printer could build a crescent wrench by adding a layer of material and stacking another layer on top of that one and fusing them together, repeating the process until the wrench is complete. Additionally, since the wrench is not assembled from preexisting parts, it would be a complete entity--unable to break into component parts as there is only one 'part.' Since the wrench is made by additive manufacturing as opposed to conventional 'subtractive manufacturing'--taking a block of raw material and removing excess until the finished product remains--the process as a whole is more efficient and less wasteful.7

The use of the 3-D printer as described above yields a finished product ready to be used immediately off of the printer instead of waiting for a completed assembly.

The 3-D printer receives its instructions via a software program generically called computer aided design (CAD). The CAD system models the desired object in a solid-modeling program, which means that its models are an agglomeration of points in space rather than a hollow group of stitched-together polygons. With its emphasis on solid, volumetric materials, this type of modeling is particularly well-suited for 3-D printing. …

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