4 December 2015




Before I get into the meat of this post, there is something that I want to make absolutely clear: Semaphore has never made a functional gun. Semaphore will never make a functional gun, unless it is legal and in full cooperation with the police.

Now that’s over with – man, is 3D printing the coolest thing ever or what?

3D printing is just what it sounds like – printing 3-dimensional objects. An object is built up through the laying down of thousands of thin layers. It’s most commonly done in plastic but objects can also be printed in nylon, metal and other materials. It’s a wild new frontier in manufacturing. It’s even been suggested that 3D printing could overthrow the current capitalist system by putting the means of production in the hands of ordinary people.

We made it, guys! It's the future! Source.

It sounds wonderfully utopian in theory. Who wouldn’t want to print their own toys, their own clothes, even their own food? But what happens when a less desirable pattern becomes available?

That question jumped to the forefront of many people’s minds on May 5, 2013, when Cody Wilson released his pattern for a 3D printed gun, which he named the Liberator. I wouldn’t call it a panic exactly but people began to ask questions about what 3D printing was really capable of. There are currently no regulations on 3D printer ownership and use. And, unlike a traditional gun, the Liberator can be printed completely out of plastic, making it undetectable using traditional methods.

The Liberator in the process of being printed. Photo credit: Daniel Southwick.

I’ll be the first to admit that the idea of anyone being able to print a gun at any time is pretty scary. But how much of that fear is just hype? Is it actually possible to just download the pattern and go?

The iSchool’s own Semaphore, a research cluster dedicated to investigating emergent technologies and society’s relationship with them, decided to wrestle with that question. A team consisting of Dr. Matt Ratto, Isaac Record, ginger coons and Daniel Southwick attempted to print the Liberator.

The original plan was to print a fully functional gun and see just how easy it was to create such a thing. But, unfortunately for the team (although perhaps fortunately for us!), gun control laws in Canada are pretty strict. The team did attempt to partner with the police but things just didn’t work out in the timeframe they had.

So, they altered the pattern, to make sure that their gun didn’t actually function. The gun they eventually came up with had several parts reoriented, a plug glued into the slot for the firing pin and was printed in clear resin, a far more delicate material than called for in the pattern. It took 17 hours to print the full gun.

Showing off some of the Liberator's alterations. Photo credit: Daniel Southwick.

Can anyone print a gun now? The team concluded that, theoretically, yes. But in practice, no.

3D printers are not cheap, especially 3D printers which are good enough to make large and complex prints. And 3D printing does in fact require skill. It took four people who study 3D printing three days to get the gun printed and together. And even if they hadn’t altered the final product, the team doesn’t consider the gun to be particularly dangerous. As Dr. Ratto pointed out, you could kill someone with it. . . if they were only three feet away.

The Liberator, before assembly. Photo credit: Daniel Southwick.

Does that mean that we never have to worry about 3D printed weapons? Of course not. 3D printing is advancing in leaps and bounds. Someday, it probably will be that easy to print a gun (or a sword or a bomb). And that means we’ll have to grapple with these big questions of control. How do you keep someone from printing a gun? The simplest answer is to ban or regulate 3D printers. But is that really the route we want to go? 3D printing has the potential to be dangerous but it also has the potential to be amazing. Let’s take the time to really think about how society should and will adapt to 3D printing, before we panic and outlaw something that could literally revolutionize our world.

The team with the fully assembled Liberator. From left: Matt Ratto, Isaac Record, Daniel Southwick and ginger coons. Source.

Works Consulted:

Record, I., Southwick, D., coons, g., & Ratto, M. (2014). Regulating the Liberator: Prospects for government regulation of 3D printing. Journal of Peer Production.

Giovannetti, J. (2013, July 2). U of T team's DIY handgun tests the potential of 3-d printing. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/u-of-t-teams-diy-handgun-tests-the-potential-of-3-d-printing/article12943852/

Special thanks to Daniel Southwick and Dr. Matt Ratto, two men I would trust with a 3D printer any day of the week.

If you would like to experience the wonders of 3D printing for yourself, Semaphore holds an open Critical Making Lab almost every Friday from 9:30 - 11:30. I can personally attest that everyone in the lab is knowledgeable, patient and willing to answer endless questions.

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