By Rob Burgess
When I was a child, I often wondered what technological advancements would shape our collective futures. (The personal jet pack and the flying car seemed like obvious choices.) But when I was tearing at the perforated edges of the continuous feed paper being loudly spat out of my family’s primitive dot matrix printer, I could have never guessed I was actually staring into a much noisier version of a crystal ball.
“3D printing is a technology which makes it possible to build real objects from virtual 3D objects,” reads the product description on the website for Create It Real, a 3D printer manufacturer. “This is done by ‘cutting’ the virtual object in 2D slices and printing the real object slice by slice. Slices are printed on top of each other and since each slice has a given thickness, e.g. 0.5mm, the real object gains volume every time a slice is added.”
The concept of 3D printing — or, as it’s also known, additive manufacturing — has been around for some time.
“The inception of 3D printing can be traced back to 1976, when the inkjet printer was invented,” reads the introduction to a May 2012 report by T. Rowe Price. “In 1984, adaptations and advances on the inkjet concept morphed the technology from printing with ink to printing with materials.”
The report goes on to chronicle numerous milestones in the slow, fascinating evolution of the invention. These include: the first printing of a working kidney in 2002, the development of the first 3D printer which could reproduce the majority of its own parts in 2008 and the completion of the first working 3D-printed automobile in 2011.
Another major milestone in the history of 3D printing was reached earlier this month when Cody Wilson, director of the nonprofit Defense Distributed, announced he had conducted the first-ever successful test firing of a completely 3D-printed gun in (where else?) Texas. Wilson then uploaded the plans online. These files were then downloaded over 100,000 times over the next 48 hours. That was, until the State Department intervened.
“Blueprints for the world’s first 3D-printed gun have been pulled from the Internet after the State Department ordered the gun’s creator to remove the files required to print the gun from the Defense Distributed website,” reported CBS News on Friday. “Fifteen of the gun’s 16 parts are made of plastic that is undetectable by airport security. The gun, named the ‘Liberator,’ was printed on a Stratasys Dimension SST 3D printer.”
This innovation completely flips the whole gun control debate on its head. And it’s left the all three branches of government straining to catch up.
“New York congressmen Steve Israel and Chuck Schumer have both called for the renewal of the Undetectable Firearms Act to ban any gun that can’t be spotted with a metal detector,” reported Andy Greenburg of Forbes on May 8. “But Defense Distributed’s real goal hasn’t been to create an undetectable gun so much as an uncensorable, digital one. As … Wilson sees it, firearms can be made into a printable file that blurs the line between gun control and information censorship, blending the First Amendment and the Second and demonstrating how technology can render the government irrelevant.”
This is the first major skirmish in what promises to be a long and difficult war between this new technology and the established order. The “Liberator” isn’t cheap, reliable or durable. Yet. Most people don’t have 3D printers. Yet. These facts don’t really matter because if there’s one thing about technology, it is this: It’s always getting faster and cheaper as time goes on. Wilson and his cohorts have been trying to perfect a working 3D gun for some time. They started with various gun parts like magazines and have been working for this day ever since. Wilson, or someone like him, will one day make a better gun. And one day 3D printing will, most likely, become as ubiquitous as the 2D printers we now know. All of this is just a matter of time. Imagine the possibilities. You had better. They are coming ever closer to becoming reality.
Even after all this, though, I still have a hard time believing that such a mundane and failure-prone device as the printer could cause such fervor. As I type these words I sit at my desk, not 20 feet away from my office’s printer. The small screen on the top of this machine reads: TONER LOW. Because it is the weekend and the office itself is closed, the few of us left to work the weekend shift have taken turns opening the top, removing the unwieldy cartridge and shaking it violently as to extricate just a few more copies out of it before servicing it. As I gaze upon the blurry and barely readable sheets it has produced today, I wonder: Is this the future? The copies stare back at me. Like a cheap version of sorcerer, I squint my eyes and gaze into them. I think I can almost read the words which seem to appear before me: “I am.”
Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.