September 16, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

They have the potential to start a revolution in home manufacturing, but are 3D printers dangerous? ...


From knee replacements to chocolate bars; from jewellery to cars; when it comes to 3D printing, if you can design it, you can print it.

Over the last 10 years, additive manufacturing, or ‘3D printing’ as it has become more affectionately known, has begun to step out of the manufacturing world and take up residence in many people’s homes. As 3D printers trek across the globe in various forms and sizes, the printing process itself remains the same: an object is created by laying down thin, successive layers of material such as glass, polymers, metal, plastics or ceramics.

3D printing has become extremely popular with those with a do-it-yourself mentality. In fact, 3D printing enthusiasts believe that in the next few years, instead of running to the shops for a household item, you’ll simply design the object yourself, or download a template file, then print it at home. Printers designed to be used at home, like the ‘Makerbot’ or ‘RepRap’, are already commercially available.

Though it may seem premature to suggest that 3D printers will be in every household or business in a few years’ time – printer prices currently range from £300 to £15,000 – one fact remains: 3D printing is quickly gaining in popularity. According to a survey by the Journal of Peer Production in 2012, the 3D printing community has grown at a rate of 20–40% every year since 2005. In a recent article about the 3D printer phenomenon, the New York Times noted that “their rise has been compared to that of personal computers in the 1980s.”

As the number of 3D printers grows, it is likely that so too will the number of digital design files being uploaded to open source websites like Thingiverse and Google’s 3D Warehouse. As users continue to upload designs to these sites, the chances for patent and copyright infringement will also rise, believes Dr Phill Dickens, Professor of Manufacturing Technology at Loughborough University. “In the end, who owns the intellectual property?” Dickens asked a room of students and professors at an Imperial College lecture. “Furthermore, who is responsible if something goes wrong? There are lots of business and social issues that we just haven’t worked out yet because we haven’t really thought about it very much – but we will have to soon.”

The question of who owns the design for a 3D-printed object may not, however, be as thorny an issue as what the object is. While the vast majority of home 3D printing is currently being used to design and build innocuous items like kettle lids, manufacturers celebrate the fact that the only limit is your imagination. And it’s this ‘limit’ of what can be printed that underscores a potential issue, because people are capable of imagining some pretty dangerous (even illegal) items.

One example that has recently gained international attention is the 3D printing of gun parts. Regardless of the legal status of guns, it goes without saying that a gun in the wrong hands can be very dangerous. The idea that 3D printing could one day enable anyone to download the design files needed to print the pieces and assemble a gun at home is a prospect that deserves attention.

In July 2012, Michael Guslick, posting under the name HaveBlue on a gun forum called, successfully designed, printed and tested the lower receiver of a .22 calibre AR-15 assault rifle made out of ABS plastic (the plastic used to make Lego) using a Stratasys 3D printer. The lower receiver is the body of the gun and is the most regulated of gun components.

“It’s had over 200 rounds of .22 through it so far and [it] runs great!” Guslick posted under photos of a gun with his lower receiver.

Guslick uploaded the design files for the lower receiver to Thingiverse. Until a website overhaul in late December, Guslick’s design shared database space with hundreds of files for firearm parts of several semiautomatic rifles and handguns.

These sorts of files have started to gain even more attention recently as the designs Guslick released are for the same AR-15 assault rifle that was used by Adam Lanza in December 2012 to massacre 20 children and eight adults in Newton, Connecticut, USA. Furthermore, the printable gun components have stirred up controversy because when these parts are combined with gun parts that can be purchased online, a person might be able to put together a lethal weapon without having to cross any legal barriers or even need identification. Moreover, these guns could be made undetectable by security scanners, especially if main components like the lower receiver are made of plastic.

Cody Wilson, a law student from the University of Texas, set up Defense Distributed, a group with one main objective: to produce and publish a design file for a completely 3D printable gun. Wilson calls this gun-in-progress a “Wiki Weapon” and is currently working with a team to make a functioning magazine for the gun.

Such cases of people starting to print their own guns have put lawmakers and law enforcement agents in a tough position. While law enforcement agencies can potentially work with websites such as Thingiverse to have them self-regulate designs that appear on their site, they cannot regulate everything that appears on the Internet. For example, after Thingiverse removed files for firearm pieces from its website, Defense Distributed started, a website dedicated to hosting files for printing firearms, rifles, pistols and grenades. And no amount of regulation can prevent a person from designing and printing pieces of guns on their own 3D printer.

There are a lot of benefits from 3D printing’s rising popularity. There are also bound to be some tough issues, like gun regulation, that will arise. These are problems that may be easiest to grapple with now – before the dream of having a 3D printer in every home is made a reality.


IMAGE: Mikhail Gershovich