On 21 June 2013, the German newspaper Handelsblatt ran an article with the title “Die Waffe aus dem Hobbyraum” (“Home-Made Weapons”) on potential uses of 3D printers. The title referred to the notorious “Liberator”, a pistol which is almost completely made from plastic. Instructions for printing the weapon out were released on the internet by the company Defense Distributed of Texan law student Cody Wilson. It took only two days for the instructions to be downloaded 100,000 times. That was too much for the US authorities, which made sure that they were deleted from the net.
A plastic weapon? It seems quite unlikely that the pistol really works. Several videos on the internet show people trying to shoot with the one-shoot weapon. While it does shoot, it is not secure for the shooter, and hitting the target is strictly optional.
Numerous potential uses for 3D printers
Apart from that example, the Handelsblatt article contains an interesting core message. The journalists claim that almost anything, from prostheses to spare parts and pistols, can be produced at home in the future. Well, it certainly will not be quite as easy as that. Even though 3D printers are becoming much cheaper – and thus affordable for households – there are still some technical and economic problems to be resolved, just as with all innovations. While industrial printers are already able to process diverse materials, such as metals, rubber, ceramics and plastic, developers will need to spend many sleepless nights puzzling over how to enable 3D printers for home users to do that.A new smartphone case, a rubber duck for the tub or a cooking spoon for the kitchen – quite a lot of products might be produced with a 3D printer, provided they are plastic. Metal products are a different kettle of fish, as the example of the pistol shows. If it was easy to “print” metal products (high melting temperatures and thermal stress for the nozzles are only two problems which come to mind), Cody Wilson would certainly have produced a metal pistol. And a metal pistol would certainly have worked better.
However, if we take a closer look at the industrial sector, 3D printers offer a number of new possibilities. Plastics, synthetic resin or ceramics – 3D printers are very useful for modelling (rapid prototyping), which is a key step in the development of new products. It is no longer necessary to talk to suppliers and ask them for certain parts or prototypes. Parts and prototypes can simply be produced with a 3D printer and checked for size, fit, handling, haptic characteristics etc. Afterwards, they can be produced conventionally using the necessary tools once a product reaches the stage of mass production. Still, that is not yet a revolution. The first working 3D printer was already available in 1984.
Industrial revolution quite possible
If many observers talk about a “new industrial revolution” triggered by 3D printers, they are right in one respect: Widespread use of 3D printers will change design procedures, prototype building and production processes in industry (for interesting examples of different applications see the website of the company Stratasys, a producer of 3D printers). If 3D printers do indeed become household appliances one day, like laser printers (which once were unaffordable, too), much more far-reaching changes might be possible. In that case, everyone might quite easily produce whatever they want to. Moreover, companies would not need to produce as many spare parts, but could simply make the construction plans (produced with the help of a modelling software) available on the internet so that users could print out the parts they needed. This would be a similar development to MP3 downloads versus physical CDs. Moreover, it would be possible to produce small series and individualised, customer-specific products at acceptable costs.
The developments should be followed closely, as they might offer interesting opportunities – even though “printing” weapons should be out of the question.