Two articles in PopSci caught my eye this week, and both concerned 3D printing — in wildly different ways.
French design student Luc Fusaro created the first custom-built running shoe using 3D printing techniques. At 96 grams, it’s a full 42% lighter than the Nike Mayfly, until recently the world’s lightest running shoe.
And after I found those two examples of what prototype, or 3D, printing can do for us, I looked around PopSci.com a little while to see what else I could find. The almost-completely printed UAV (the only thing created using conventional means was the engine) wasn’t even the most extreme example — the Urvee is an entirely printed car, and this was back in 2010.
I think 3D printing has been creeping up on us for a while, now. My first exposure to it was this rather terrible video, which was so astonishing that I honestly believed it to be a hoax for a good several months. But the novelty will begin to wear off soon enough, and we’ll start asking ourselves the really difficult questions — not “What can I make with this?” or “Can I print a space shuttle?”, but “What does it mean if I can manufacture weapons at home?”
To inject a little reality into a nightmarish scenario of terrorists printing weaponry in some remote location, we should note that you’d need 3D printer schematics to be able to do something like this. Thingiverse, which is linked to in the article about the assault rifle, has a number of other gun and rifle parts; I’m not well-versed enough in the mechanics to determine how much of a threat this sort of thing is. I must note, though, that (using a link given by a commenter on HaveBlue’s design), Thingiverse’s Acceptable Use Policy does state that “(a) You agree not to use the Site or Services to collect, upload, transmit, display, or distribute any User Content… ii) that… promotes illegal activities or contributes to the creation of weapons, illegal materials or is otherwise objectionable”.
Announcing it is one thing; enforcing it is another. None of the admittedly few gun parts I found on Thingiverse had been taken down. Perhaps they’ve taken down the others and are slowly working their way through them, but this would require some serious moderating.
If those levels of moderation grow, along with the community, does that mean that we’re in greater danger? Should 3D printing be restricted to strictly regulated companies and industries, even though they could be boons to innocent engineers and hobbyists? Put another way, should the possibility of printing weaponry prevent us from printing cars and shoes and planes?
Perhaps the situation isn’t as dire as we think it is. Given the state — or the lack, rather — of gun control in this country, I’d hesitate to suggest it, but maybe a supervisory approach is really what we need here. If you’ve invested in a 3D printer, gotten the schematics and printed out the various components of an entire rifle, perhaps your interest in weaponry is a little more sophisticated than someone whose sole purpose is to facilitate crime (I am, of course, leaving the 3D printer-enabled terrorists out of this equation). In this case, we could assume that the person doing the printing would either know what they’re doing with their product, or would want to be trained to use it. So maybe, in the case of guns, a process of registration, licensing, training and regular maintenance should be enforced.
What about the terrorists and the mentally disturbed, then, those who can’t be trusted to register anything they create? There’s where I find myself without an answer — except, Big Brother-like, to track the purchases of 3D printers. That’s a far from satisfactory suggestion.
I think 3D printing is the cusp of a new brand of technology altogether. It isn’t simply information. It’s a way to create tools, and perhaps in the future weapons and vehicles. Possibly, if we stretch the boundaries of what’s allowed in 3D printing (I’d have to look this up) food substitutes for impoverished regions of the world. The vending machines of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash could be around the corner.
I’ll be following developments with equal parts trepidation and excitement.
Edit: How’s this for developments?