3D printing, the next big thing

There are not all that many 3D printers in circulation yet, but in five or 10 years they may be as common as mobile phones.

The story so far: Cody Wilson, who describes himself as a “crypto-anarchist” and almost certainly wears a Second Amendment belt-buckle, had a bright idea early last year. No government could ever oppress its people again, reasoned the 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas, if everybody in the world was able to manufacture their own guns at home.

Well, not everybody in the world, exactly, but at least everybody with $8,000 to buy a 3D printer on e-Bay, or access to one of the 3D printing shops that are springing up in major cities. So Wilson set out to design a gun made entirely of high-density ABS plastic that could be printed on a standard 3D machine. He printed and tested it, and he recently made the blueprints available online.

For those who are not clear on the concept (the rest may proceed in an orderly manner to the next paragraph), a 3D printer is basically a photocopying machine that sprays molten plastic instead of ink. But instead of doing only one layer on a sheet of paper, it does thousands of layer, one on top of the other, until it has formed a fully three-dimensional object. Like a gun.

There are not all that many 3D printers in circulation yet, but they are the next big thing, and in five or 10 years they may be as common as mobile phones. It would appear that a great many people are looking forward to that happy day, because in the first week after Wilson uploaded the blueprints for his gun, 100,000 people downloaded them.

Wilson is one of those political innocents on the libertarian right who truly believe that governments would behave better if everybody had a gun. He even calls his plastic pistol the “Liberator.” He presumably hasn’t noticed that the United States government carries on collecting heavy taxes and crushing the spirit of free enterprise even though most Americans already have guns.

Predictably, last Friday the U.S. government mobilised to shut his little enterprise down. The Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance at the State Department wrote Wilson’s company, Defense Distributed, demanding that his designs for a 3D gun be “removed from public access” until he proves that he has not broken the laws that govern the shipment of weapons overseas. (Is he really shipping weapons overseas? Don’t bother us with details).

The government took that route because there has been an instant public outcry about the Liberator — but Wilson already has a licence to manufacture and sell the weapon from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. As for exporting the blueprints, he also registered his operation under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), administered by the State Department, and has legal advice that it complies with the rules.

But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. There have not only been 100,000 downloads from Wilson’s own site. It has also been uploaded onto Pirate Bay (with no protest from him), and downloads from that site are going through the roof. So what does all this mean?

It doesn’t mean that terrorists are more dangerous; they have never had any trouble in getting their hands on weapons a lot more lethal than a single-shot pistol. It does mean that people can now make weapons that will not be detected by this generation of airport metal detectors, so it may soon take even longer to get on the plane. But that was going to happen pretty soon anyway.

What Cody Wilson has actually done is provide us with a useful wake-up call about the huge economic and security implications of this powerful new technology. The 3D printers will get better, faster and cheaper, and they will be able to produce much more impressive weapons. Forget about banning assault weapons; people will be able to make them at home.

More importantly, they will also be able to 3D-print almost any other mass-produced item whose components are less than a metre (three feet) long. This not only has serious implications for retailers of such items — the Wal-Marts of the world — but also for entire countries whose economy depends heavily on manufacturing and exporting items of this sort. Even the cheapest labour is probably more expensive than 3D printing.

So “outsourcing” will go out of fashion, but the impact of 3D printing on traditional employment patterns in the developed countries will be just as severe. Cars will continue to be built on (highly automated) assembly lines, but the most of the companies in the supply chain will collapse as the car manufacturers start printing the parts themselves as and when they need them.

Here comes the future again.

Gwynne Dyer articles are published in 45 countries.

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