3D Printing: The Good, The Bad and The Disturbing
A hitman passes security carrying only a briefcase. Slipping into an unused conference room, he opens his case and assembles... a printer. Not just any printer but a 3D one. He pulls a bag of plastic beads from his jacket, pours them into the printer and, voila, instant gun. Yes, he'll only have one shot but he won't have a problem getting past the metal detectors and into the hall where the president is speaking.
It's a scene pulled straight from a Philip K Dick novel, and it just got one step closer to reality. UT student Cody Wilson was recently stopped from using a leased 3D printer to "print" a plastic gun of his own design. When the company that leased the printer, Stratasys, found out what he intended to do, they quickly demanded the 3D printer back, citing no notification of his intentions, which they said could be against the law.
This bizarro case, reported in the Austin American Statesman today, brings up a litany of questions revolving around the legality and threat posed by this emerging technology:
At least for now, the project is on hold, said Wilson, the 24-year-old director and co-founder of Defense Distributed, the online collective managing the Wiki Weapon Project. To legal experts and law enforcement officials, this particular situation falls under a new frontier of the law.
“It is unclear if what we are doing is legal or illegal,” Wilson said Wednesday at his home. “We have turned around and realized that technology got ahead of the law, and I am not saying this with any hubris.”
A license is not required to manufacture certain types of guns if they are not intended for sale. But whether the Wiki Weapon prototype falls under that category depends on whom you ask, and Wilson said he is not willing to risk that question in court and is applying for a license.
Michael Reyes, resident agent in charge of the ATF Austin office, said it had received a referral on Wilson because his project had received so much buzz on the Internet. But Wilson visited the office Monday on his own accord — before agents reached out to him — because he had questions about the license process and legalities of his project. Wilson is not under investigation and has not broken any laws, Reyes said.
“Some of the questions we were able to answer, some we were not,” the resident agent said. “If you are going to manufacture or be in the business of manufacturing, then you need a license, so it’s going to come back to whether you are in business.”
To anyone that has followed 3D printing technology, it's clear that it will transform our world in countless ways: Hospitals will be able to make custom hip replacements in their own building, kids can make their own action figures from downloadable plans, and people will potentially have the ability to make weapons in their home. This scenario, good and bad like much of our technological advances, is not that far from reality and will have the government scrambling to keep up.