3D Printing is Way Scarier Than Plastic Guns

“The Liberator” plastic gun by Defense Distributed

Ever the publicity hound, Sen. Chuck Schumer, who obviously has no idea what additive manufacturing actually is, came out big and strong against “stomach-churning” 3D printed plastic guns last week.

“Everyone’s seen the movie ‘In The Line of Fire,’ where one of the great bad guys, [played by] John Malkovich, labored at making a gun out of plastic and wood so it could get through metal detectors and he could assassinate the president…” Senator Schumer went on to say, “But that was only a movie, and just this week, it has become reality. We’re facing a situation where anyone — a felon, a terrorist — can open a gun factory in their garage and the weapons they make will be undetectable. It’s stomach-churning.”

This naive, sensationalist rant so misunderstands the issue, I almost don’t know where to start.  He goes on to inform the public that because these guns are made of plastic, they are undetectable, so he must introduce legislation that will make it illegal to possess an undetectable or an untraceable weapon.  This is like putting a “Band-Aid on a heart attack.”  Sen. Schumer simply doesn’t understand what he is dealing with.  In fact, most of us don’t.

We (all of us) need to understand how different the actual world is from the world most of us think we’re living in.  Most people believe that tomorrow is going to be substantially identical to today.  The sun will rise, you’ll have breakfast, go to work, etc.  But, those are the things we try to keep constant in our lives … technological advances don’t work that way.

Technology is evolving at an accelerating rate and we really have no chance of keeping up with it – not legally, not legislatively, not socially, not strategically … not at all.  The best we can do is position ourselves to quickly adapt to change – it is the only guaranteed part of our reality.

Back to 3D printing, aka additive manufacturing — 3D printed plastic handguns are just one example of an unimaginably large number of weapons one could manufacture using a 3D printer.  They are also an example (by manufacturing technique only) of the infinite number of constructive, uplifting, world-changing, life-affirming, life-saving items that one can manufacture using the exact same technology.

There are several variations of additive manufacturing technology.  The 3D printer that has everyone’s attention prints one layer of plastic at a time.  The thickness of the each layer determines the printer’s resolution.  Thinner layers allow for more complicated and intricate output.  Resolution of the printer is also a function of the materials being used to create the output.  Some materials require thicker layers to print stable objects, other materials can be printed on nano-tech scales.  The plastic guns in question are easy to print on inexpensive 3D printers because they are basically simple blocks of plastic with grooves and a few holes in them.

Now that you know what a 3D printer is, you must also understand that 3D printers are not limited to printing in plastic.  There are 3D printers that print in wood (a mixture of wood particles and binding agent that dries as wood) ceramic, carbon fiber, bronze, iron, steel, cellulose, human tissue (certain body parts for human transplant are grown using 3D printed frameworks) … there are limitations to the range of additive manufacturing materials, but the technology is evolving rapidly.

As for guns … CAD/CAM files (the computer files that 3D printers transform into physical objects one layer at a time) for the .45 caliber M1911 or the 1911A-1 single-action, semi-automatic pistol have been online for years.  In fact, you can find all kinds of CAD/CAMs for all kinds of gun parts, bomb parts, bazooka parts, rocket launcher parts and other deadly weapons online.  These are computer files, like songs or movies or documents or images, they cannot be protected or digitally rights managed (DRM) any better than the entertainment industry has done with its intellectual property.  A file is a file is a file, if someone wants to copy it – it will be copied.  You can’t tell what the file contains unless you open it and, most importantly, there is no way to ban or prohibit the transfer of files.  In this case, the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, the ship has sailed – the files are out there.

Plastic guns?  Seriously.  How about guns printed in steel, guns printed in carbon fiber, guns printed in, you name it – there’s a 3D printer that can print in the medium.  In a world of 3D printers, there is no such thing as gun control – people who are so inclined will print all the guns and ammo they need – untraceable, no serial numbers, no markings about point of origin, no trade marks, nothing!

That’s the dark side of this technology.  However, the benefits of 3D printing are overwhelmingly positive.

This is a picture of a 3D printed replacement part for a baby stroller.  It was printed at a 3D printing bureau called Shapeways.  You can think of Shapeways as a Kinkos for 3D printing.  Shapeways prints in all kinds of materials, including stainless steel.

One of the employees of Shapeways needed a replacement part for his kid’s stroller, so he emailed the manufacturer and they emailed him a CAD/CAM file for the part.  He printed two of them in stainless steel – one for the stroller and one to display at the Maker Faire, where I took this picture.

This stainless steel part was annealed, deburred in a tub of ceramic balls and looks exactly like the spare part the manufacturer would have sent him.  The difference is profound.  The replacement part was printed on demand.  The spare part would have to have been manufactured in advance, stored on a shelf, picked, packed and shipped.  Rent would have been paid on the real estate the physical spare part occupied and it would have to be kept in stock during the entire useful life of the particular stroller design.

Go have a look at an average manufacturing facility and see how much real estate and other resources are used storing parts that may break sometime in the future.  Now multiply this by everything ever made in a factory and you start to see the kind of economic impact 3D printing may have.  How about 3D printers in sterile environments (like Hospitals) creating specialized instruments for surgery (robotic or other)?  Let your imagination run wild – once you understand additive manufacturing, you will think of thousands of ways to use this technology – you will also realize how it is going to change supply chains and shipping and real estate and materials handling and on and on.  3D printing is changing the world.

Now Sen. Schumer, let’s start over.  This is not a technology to sensationalize.  When high-speed laser printers became economical for people to have at home, they did not start printing counterfeit books – but the nature of printed material changed forever.  That is exactly what is going to happen here.  Some things will be 3D printed, others will not.  Some things will be cheaper or better 3D printed at home, others will be better 3D printed by companies like Shapeways, and still others will be printed in factories because it is more cost-effective to do so.

From now on, physical goods can easily be produced from the files that were created to design them – which gives a whole to meaning to “Real 3D” and gives us a science fact version of Star Trek’s Transtater (sans Transporter and Warp Drive).



Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is Managing Director, Digital Media Group at Landmark Ventures/ShellyPalmer a technology focused Investment Banking & Advisory practice specializing in M&A, Financings, Strategic Partnerships and Innovation Access. He is Fox 5 New York's On-air Tech Expert and well known for his work on Fox Television's Shelly Palmer Digital Living as well as his daily radio report on United Stations Radio Networks. For more information, visit shellypalmer.com.


  1. Nicole Hernandez says:

    Excellent article. As someone with over a dozen years of business in tech, the drama about this plastic gun schematic has been tiresome, ignorant noise. We cannot and should not stop the flow of new technology out of fear of the small minority which will always use it for evil. There are so many things which are useful which ‘can’ be used for evil, in a huge range from cars to matches, and we aren’t going to ban or limit them all. This is our replicator moment, and it is one of the biggest advances in tech – it’s going to change everything. As it becomes cheaper and cheaper, this will speed up innovation so drastically because small inventors will have a super-fast way to create prototype products or do micro-manufacturing without having to go through all the hooplah of pitching products, financing, or bulk order minimums. Those small inventors are where all the next great ideas are going to come from, and I bet more than half of them will probably come from kids :)

  2. paula lynn says:

    This is one of the chain of events one of your futurists described as an employment reducer in the supply chain, especially for non-skilled workers, never to return. Fact and there are not any wake up calls throughout the kingdoms. There still is a difference between the printing press, the great threat to the catholic church (if more people could read, they could think for themselves and then what would happen to the church?) and weapons printed in the home (not necessarily tomorrow in every home like a refrigerator). Shrugging it off as inevitable will not satisfy people whose lives have been destroyed by them or loved ones killed in the streets worse than now. Catching and punishing the culprits will not bring back the dead with “parts are parts”. But let’s not jump to write a bejoggled law without expert discussion looking at all ramifications so at least the try to get it right will be better. There will be laws.

    • Ronin says:

      I see this as destroying external demand for cheaply made gee-gaws from China. Once the field matures, and the capabilities are more robust, we’re back to garage inventors that change the world faster and faster at best. Or built in DRM and controlled feedstock at worst.

  3. Tim Halle says:

    I’ve been around technology long enough to know that this isn’t a “genie” that can be “put back in the bottle”, and in general I think this is going to be a good thing. Having said this, firearms manufacturing is way too emotional an issue to be used as a lens for discussion of this particular technology. 3d printing is going to be to a huge range of physical products what digital distribution was to music and film, this is to say that CAD files are going to be freely shared and widely available on the ‘net (in fact if you know the right folks, they probably are already) and just as in music and film, it will be very difficult to track this absent the most draconian measures. Given your past statements on intellectual property, I am surprised that you don’t have concerns about this and how would you propose it be regulated ?

    • TMLutas says:

      It’s perfectly possible to put technology genies back in bottles. The method is well known but it’s so horrific that virtually nobody does it. Make use of the technology a death penalty crime, punishment to be applied on the spot.

      Easy. Also horrific, and with a side effect list that is long and makes the effort not worth it. Draconian doesn’t begin to cover the depth to which society would be transformed by such a change.

      Essentially, inexpensive 3D printing and it’s subtractive cousin, CNC machines enable people to make stuff without large amounts of capital and the number of things that can be made this way bypassing legacy methods is growing. This radically changes the game in terms of physical Intellectual Property and the rules should be changed. They won’t because too many politicians are getting too much money from IP incumbents who don’t want their cozy setups disturbed.

      Too bad.

  4. deancollins says:

    Senator Schumer is clueless. There is already a law which prevents making guns able to pass through metal detectors….that’s why there is a metal pin in the printable gun…..

    Having said that Senator Schumer obviously doesn’t understand how easy it is to “manufacture” a gun eg check out this two piece zip gun – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Va87gB_4AI

    So Senator Schumer….how are you going to stop someone from putting together “two pieces of pipe”.

  5. Transtater? Should that have been Replicator? Please correct me if I am incorrect.

  6. Larry Arnold says:

    The other hole in Sen. Schumer’s argument is that modern firearms are 19th century technology. (The first semiauto rifle manufactured was the Mannlicher model of 1885.) There are several “third world” places where people who barely have electricity “replicate” boatloads of black-market guns functionally identical to the originals. Completely eliminate 3D printing, and you can make the same gun with a block of plastic and hand tools.
    But Sen. Schumer’s idea does make more sense that Sen. Lautenberg’s proposal to register gunpowder, which is 7th century technology.

    • Billy Oblivion says:

      “functionally” identical is a serious overstatement.

      They are *visually* almost identical (down to the serial number. The *same* serial number over and over), but let’s just say I’d rather get in a fight carrying a 22 Ruger single action than almost anything out of Durra. At least I know the Ruger won’t go off in my hand.

  7. leelu says:

    I worked in aerospace for about 30 years. When we can print a whole C-17, we’ll really have something. ;-) First saw this as a prototyping tool back in the late 80s.

    With a decent 3D scanner, some inexpensive CAD software and a printer, you don’t even need to get the CAD file from the manufacturer, just scan and print as needed. Not new, btw. One of our CAD/CAM customers would digitize their new ovens, so they could make their own replacement parts, rather than paying exorbitant money to the manufacturer!

  8. anamax says:

    One important difference between movies and CAD files is that Hollywood releases their movies in digital form with DRM attached with very few CAD files are released with DRM. (Never mind that Hollywood’s DRM gets broken almost immediately and that they occasionally leak non-DRM’d copies.)
    The “state of the law” is that it is illegal to remove DRM. That’s irrelevant in this case because the folks producing the “stomach-churning” CAD files didn’t DRM on said files because:
    (1) those folks want said files copied freely and (2) almost none of the machines that take CAD files and produce objects can handle DRM.
    In other words, DRM is irrelevant and none of the participants want to change that.
    Perhaps Schumer would like to mandate that all CAD files be produced with DRM. Since (2), that would have “interesting” results.

  9. Dustin says:

    I know this is the same old response, but if someone is willing to commit murders or assassinations why in the world would a regulation on file sharing or 3D printing stop them? They obviously won’t care. The only people that Schumer is thwarting are the good guys. By definition, his laws will only affect law abiders. And of course, that’s why such laws empower the lawless. That’s why Chicago and Detroit and other places with tremendous regulation on self defense and firearms are the places where the lawless are freer, nastier, and more common.

    The law abiding who wish to earn an honest living must take personal responsibility for his own safety and his family’s security. That is the only way it works. Legislators should harshly criminalize having a weapon during the commission of a serious crime, but they should also be careful not to make laws that damage the law abider’s responsibility to protect himself.

  10. kenroyall says:

    “3D Printing” is probably the worst name they could have ever used for this technology. If people are confused, that is part of the reason. The term itself is somewhat of a contradiction.

    The production of books, newspapers, or other printed material.
    A single impression of a book.

    What is being done here is not really printing although the devices used resemble printers. This is ground breaking technology but there has been nothing stopping people from making weapons (or most other items) for themselves and others for 100’s of years.

    The only thing that makes it “scary” it is it makes the process easier, ostensibly. Of course your average person isn’t going to have a 3D printer any time soon, nor do they understand the technology.

    Homemade guns, bombs, incendiary devices have been around forever. This is just really cool prototyping technology that cuts out some time consuming and expensive steps. No need to panic.

  11. Ronin says:

    Superb article. This is the exact point. Cody Wilson was right. “We win.”

  12. Rich K says:

    Actually I think the “Replicator” is a more clear metaphor for this tech.Once millions of these parts files are on site in a 3D Printing facility and all the patent and copyright issues are resolved the whole concept of replacement parts will be revolutionized. A few huge 3D houses can ship out the most obscure part for pretty much anything on demand with only the raw materials to store and inventory.Wow.If only I had a few million laying around.

  13. RagnarDanneskjold says:

    Senator Schumer’s job is to make sure nobody is looking at the theft and criminality going on at Wall Street banks. Aside from manipulating interest rates, they are involved in money laundering for drug cartels. Anything that distracts from that is a win for Schumer.

  14. John Beier says:

    So, what we need to do is figure out exactly how improbable it is that an infinite improbability generator could spontaneously self-create and then feed that number into a finite improbability generator…

  15. magua_ESQ says:

    “Everyone’s seen the movie ‘In The Line of Fire,’ where one of the great
    bad guys, [played by] John Malkovich, labored at making a gun out of
    plastic and wood so it could get through metal detectors and he could
    assassinate the president…” Senator Schumer went on to say, “But that
    was only a movie, and just this week, it has become reality.”

    John Malkovich tried to assassinate the President?

    We used to fear the influence the film industry had on our children.

    We should have been afraid on the influence the film industry would have on the dimmer bulbs in our legislative bodies.

  16. Tedd says:

    Those of us who understand technology need to be realistic about this. It is the normal flow of events that a new technology makes its presence felt in the political sphere in the dumbest possible manner. Remember porn and the internet in the 90s? Heck, bicycles were once decried because they allowed young couples to go off somewhere unsupervised. If it weren’t guns, the bogeyman of additive manufacturing would be something equally stupid. But it’s inevitable that the technology will advance, become adopted by society as normal, and the panic will subside.

    I’m not saying that it’s not important to work to prevent legislation from being enacted during this panic phase. It is. But it’s also important not to get too worked up by memes that have no long-term chance of survival.

  17. Henry Bowman says:

    “We (all of us) need to understand how different the actual world is from the world most of us think we’re living in.”

    Absolutely — and not just in terms of technology.

    Our country (if not the world) is full of oblivious people who assume they are safe, despite the fact that they’ve never considered their own physical security; they they will be provided for, despite having taken no personal steps toward their own financial security; and presume they are wise, despite having never learned to exercise any actual intellectual or logical rigor.

    They use what they DO have — the power of the democratic vote, belonging equally to the solon and the moron alike — to enshrine their knee-jerk first reactions into “common sense” laws, and elect others of their number (Schumer being a prime example) to oppress their fellow countrymen with the fruits of their ignorance.

    One of the major examples of this is the country’s inexplicable failure to understand that no prohibition law has ever achieved its goals in the history of mankind. Here in the USA, alcohol prohibition was a failure; drug prohibition is a continuing failure; and prohibitions on 3D printers or plastic guns will be a failure. While actual aggressive use of an object can and should always be a crime, prohibiting mere victimless possession of that object borders tyranny. As Lincoln put it, “Prohibition goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes crimes out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”

  18. paula lynn says:

    That small minority can wipe out a great majority. It only takes one bullet, a very small minority of bullets, to kill your kid or your mother. So approach Senator Schumer with ideas and proposals that will incorporate technology leadership with provisions to protect the public. He started the conversation. Join in without the blah blah, but with constructive additions/adjustments. This includes more than guns.

  19. Ann Shirley says:

    You raise an interesting point. Everyone’s always excited by how innovative and great 3-D printing and

    manufacturing are for medical industries and the like
    but no one ever considers how it can be used for harm such as through the manufacturing of weapons. I think we might need to really regulate how these 3-d printers are used to ensure safety.

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