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The XYZs of 3D-Printing

By Mike Kanoff | Counterpoint | June 27th, 2013 |

<<Featured Image Credit: Michael Thad Carter for Forbes

Briefly during past editions of Counterpoint, we’ve brought up the topic of 3D-printing. I figured that since this week’s show will likely be all about the Supreme Court cases, I’d take up a less well-known topic.

 

3D-printing: it’s like regular printing– same idea, different material– but the extra dimension opens up so many possibilities. Where 2D-printers use ink jets or lasers to produce an image on a sheet of paper, 3D-printers use plastic (usually ABS, the stuff LEGOs are made of) to produce objects in 3-dimensional space. I’ll leave the tech component there; more information can be found by starting here. So how does this technology have a political impact? I find most of the political conversation boils down to a question along the lines of “who should be able to print what?” and then is usually divided between the copyright/patent sphere and the firearms-related sphere, recently catapulted into the spotlight by the Liberator pistol.

 

There was a time when copyright was good… a couple hundred years ago. Today, it’s all about DRM (Digital Rights Management) and preventing “piracy.” If you’ve ever changed cell phone brands and wanted to take your music with you from one to the other, you’ve likely encountered DRM; the thing stopping you from playing your imported music on your new device. And the best part, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t even work: the “piracy” it’s supposed to stop has yet to be stopped from circumventing any and all forms of DRM, and it all winds up being just a pain to the average, non-pirate consumer.

 

I could go on about how DRM is the demon-spawn of consumer unfriendly business strategy and asinine understanding of technology, but for the sake of time, I’ll assume my point has been made by now. The reason I’m bringing this up is that there have recently been murmurs of trying to create a platform/standard/expectation for soon-to-be commercially available 3D-printers to have built-in DRM. This would mean that when someone would buy a 3D-printer, they would be restricted from printing objects on a “blacklist” of sorts; likely copyrighted/patented objects or soon-to-be copyrighted/patented objects, but possibly other things, and possibly for completely non-legal reasons, like maybe the parts for building a new 3D-printer.

 

This is dangerous: if we censor one object, why not another? And for that matter, who gets to decide what everyone else can and cannot print? Those EULAs (End-User License Agreements) everyone blindly accepts could easily hide a clause barring a user from doing something economically hindering to the manufacturer, like using the purchased 3D-printer to print most of the parts for another 3D-printer for a friend (see RepRap). We’re talking about a complete overhaul of the entire manufacturing process; you think the toy makers, the Frisbee-makers, the anything-plastic makers are going to take this lying down? When the automobile was just getting off the ground, the Red Flag Traffic Laws were lobbied for by the stagecoach and railroad industries, which, as you will humorously discover by reading the article, severely crippled the automobile’s usefulness in favor of the incumbent industries. I have no doubt that a similar effort will be made against 3D-printing in the near future.

 

But staving off the impending “printing war” for a while, I’ll get to a possible weapon for such a war, the Liberator pistol. This is a pistol, created entirely from a 3D-printer, with the sole exceptions being a nail for the firing pin, and a chunk of metal to make the pistol identifiable to metal detectors. Yes it can actually fire a bullet; one at a time, with a reload required after every shot. The files for making the pistol were made unavailable after the Department of Defense Trade Controls (no, that’s not a made-up department) claimed control over the information and made Defense Distributed, the organization which created and made the files available to the public, remove them.

If you’ve been a long-time listener for Counterpoint, you might have picked up that I’m consistently neither pro- nor anti-guns, but I’m for this little plastic pistol. Yes it can fire a bullet, but only one at a time; it’s clear that this is a proof-of-concept rather than a mass-murder assisting device. Besides that, using it for malicious purposes has obvious dissuasion: It’s not very accurate, not nearly as sturdy as a metal counterpart would be, and again, can only fire one shot at a time. But it’s barely-veritable lethality is not why I support it; I support it because this is a showcase for what 3D-printing technology can do.

 

That… and the fact that trying to go against it is pointless. Within the first two days of its release, the files for the Liberator were downloaded 100,000 times, and at the time of writing, there are 15 separate torrents on The Pirate Bay believed to be containing the same files. The former means that many people already have it, and the latter means that even though the DDTC wants the files to disappear from the face of the Internet, the torrent to get them is available from “the galaxy’s most resilient bittorrent [sic] site.” The information is out there, and it’s not going anywhere, so it seems to me like going against it is pointless. As stated above, I really doubt this will be used maliciously, or even properly at all. It’s the bare minimum required to pass proof-of-concept, made for the sake of making it.

 

Oh, and if printing this thing sounds like a good idea, I wouldn’t: the DDTC is still working through this literally first-of-its-kind situation, so the legality may be in question, even with the metal block in the gun. Also, the pistol was printed on a high-end printer, not a regular consumer-grade one, so if something goes wrong printing it out and you fire it, you could lose your hand. Stay safe.