How To Ruin A Good Idea

So a lot of scientists are saying that the 3-D printer could be the big one, the game-changer, the thing that after which nothing is the same again.

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using additive processes, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques (subtractive processes) which mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling, cutting etc.

This technology is already available and can be used to make an unbelievable amount of things. It is also becoming cheaper all the time and the designs it can make are more and more advanced.

It’s already happening.
In the future this technology could be used to make machine parts (it already is to some extent), to make machines, houses, medicines, even replacement body parts, basically anything you can think of to make life better…and it could be cheap too.

So what was one of the first things an American company came up with for this astounding technology.

Yes, you guessed right

Plans to print a gun halted as 3D printer is seized

A US project to create a printable gun has been derailed after the company supplying the 3D printer withdrew it.

In a letter published on the Wiki Weapon website, Stratasys said that it did not allow its printers “to be used for illegal purposes”

Defense Distributed, the group behind the project, had planned to share 3D weapon blueprints online.

“This project could very well change the way we think about gun control and consumption,” it said on its site.

“How do governments behave if they must one day operate on the assumption that any and every citizen has near instant access to a firearm through the internet?”

It’s predictably depressing.



  1. I’m no expert, but as I understand it there have already been a few attempts to do this on a limited basis:

    ‘While only one part of the gun was actually ”printed,” the lower receiver is the critical piece that enables the weapon to fire. It holds the bolt, trigger and the magazine, where ammunition is stored. That’s why under the American Gun Control Act, it’s this lower part that constitutes an operational gun and thus is heavily regulated.’

    Sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson anticipated the problem of print-your-own-weapons in his novel ‘The Diamond Age’, set in a future full of replicating machines that can make most of things that people might want or need.

    In Stephenson’s future world the problem has been solved, but in terms that only work in the context of what seems to be a rather right-wing / libertarian fantasy, where the world is divided into tribes of intelligent, creative, entrepreneurial geekocrats who run everything for the greater good and an violent underclass of feckless, uneducated, undeserving poor people.

    The responsible overclass get to have weapons because they can be trusted with them. The de-skilled, shiftless underclass are given access to a censored public internet of things, a sort of virtual Argos catalogue, that lets them print out all the furniture and basic household goods they need, but not guns and bombs. Mostly the plebs are dumb and passive enough to be content with these restrictions, but if they do manage to circumvent the rules and get tooled up, they’re kept in check by the tribal elites who can police the situation backed up by more and better firepower.

    I don’t buy Stephenson’s elitist caricature of society, but he deserves credit for anticipating a potential downside of distributed manufacturing. If this kind of technology ever became much better and more widespread it would have the potential to end a lot of shortages and give formerly passive consumers and micro-managed, de-skilled toilers in (white and blue collar) factories a degree of autonomy they’ve not know since the industrial revolution.

    The snake in this non-hierarchical Eden would be the fulfilment of every sociopath’s dream of an assault rifle-owning democracy. This would obviously be A Bad Thing, but it would also provide a perfect excuse for repressive elites who’d like to halt the spread of this potentially liberating technology.

    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for the very considered comment.

      What you say at the end there was one of my first thoughts when I start to read about this kind of technology. Specifically, how would certain groups try to stop the spread of a kind of technology that could be such a great leveller, especially when you consider that people would make a lot of freeware for it.

  2. If a technology works half as well as the pioneers and enthusiasts hope, I doubt whether any interest group would actually be able to stop it spreading altogether (although they might be able to slow down its dissemination to the plebs). I suspect that powerful interest groups would be more likely to be early adopters, trying to co-opt it and mould it in ways that the idealistic tech evangelists didn’t have in mind.

    I’m old enough to remember a time, in the late ‘70s, when I were a lad and automation and computers promised a 21st Century utopia. Some of the subsequent technical achievements have been utterly spectacular, but the resulting social changes aren’t quite what the dreamers imagined.

    Back then, tech pundits thought that the said computers and automation would make us all so efficient and productive that we’d be earning all we needed in a twenty hour week and devoting the spare time liberated from workaday drudgery to an agreeable-sounding mix of socialising and life-long learning. It didn’t quite work out that way, did it?

    Come to think of it, I don’t remember many predictions that mentioned new technology allowing jobs to be relocated to wherever labour’s cheapest, call centres with software that tracked employees’ toilet breaks, or a long hours culture, with the encroachment of work tasks into commuting and free time, via e-mails and spreadsheets, or high frequency trading algorithms that take stock market short term-ism to absurd levels by exploiting millisecond-long price discrepancies, or our liberating tech being produced in the Dickensian conditions of China’s iPhone factories.

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