Tech Talk: Pandora’s Printer


Defense Distributed have designed a handmade gun made entirely from printable parts.


By Nathan Blades

The printing press in the 1400s was one of the great innovations of humanity – allowing us to communicate with others, duplicate important texts, and, several hundred years of improvements later, drown beleaguered office staff under mountains of paperwork.

But now we’ve moved on to the next dimension with the 3D printer. It does exactly what the name suggests – creating copies of objects rather than text. Instead of being filled with ink cartridges, they take a feedstock of molten plastic (or even organic material if you want to print a hamburger), building up the finished product layer by layer.

The technology has been around for a few years, existing within construction and engineering industries. The age of commercialised 3D printers is inching closer, although it’s still too pricey to show up in your Argos catalogue. Even the cheapest models these days will set you back around £5,000.

The useful potential for 3D printing is astounding – if your wardrobe, bicycle or washing machine broke and needed a small obscure part, you could just print it at home. Creative types could make anything from furniture to musical instruments to kitsch mantelpiece ornaments.

Or, if you’re Defense Distributed, you could start a line of printable firearms.

The arms manufacturing company had previously been designing components for existing guns, but their current project is for the “Liberator”, a handgun made entirely from printable parts with the exception of a metal firing pin (an ordinary nail from any hardware store).

Blueprints for the Liberator were released on the internet earlier this week, and already over 100,000 people have downloaded it, according to Forbes.

The complete model looks like something from a shooting game made by Fisher Price, but its firing capability is definitely real.

Users have downloaded the plans from both the company’s website, and through a torrent hosted on The Pirate Bay. The majority of the downloads were in the US, but large numbers of downloads also came from Spain, Brazil and the UK.

Understandably, authorities are sweating bullets over the idea that a firearm is so easily accessible. The Senator of California, Leland Yee, showed concern over a widely available gun that can’t be picked up by metal detectors.

Over here, the Metropolitan Police have put out a statement, reminding that our gun control laws require a person to be a Registered Firearms Dealer to manufacture a gun. So while having the blueprint isn’t illegal, printing out the parts will get you nicked.

The US State Department sent a letter to Cody Wilson, Defense Distributed’s founder, with a demand that the online blueprints are taken down. Of course, now they’ve been made public, totally eradicating them is decidedly impossible. Still, Defense Distributed have removed the item from their servers.

The decision to release the blueprints publicly ties into Mr Wilson’s stance on information censorship. An ‘all information should be without regulation’ stance similar to that of Julian Assange is partnered with Wilson’s politics on gun control.

In my opinion, that’s an evil scheme if I ever saw one. To tie freedom of information (which I mostly agree with as a journalist) with pro-firearms rhetoric really shoots holes in the credibility of the former. At least any anti-establishment sentiments he had fell by the wayside when he sheepishly removed the blueprints from his site when asked.

It feels like the age of domestic 3D printers will be postponed – I don’t see HP and Epson wanting to make consumer models when the public see the technology as inherently dangerous or illegal.

I was looking forward to being printing new glasses frames, fashion accessories and miniature figurines of video game characters, but until the violence fetishists are out of the public focus, my 3D modelling hobby shall have to be put on hold.

There is some, hope, though. Chris Anderson, the CEO of 3D Robotics says that 3D printing is a bad method for gun manufacturing, as the plastic wouldn’t be able to handle the tensile strength their metal brethren are capable of.

 Photo courtesy of Tiia Monto, with thanks.

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