3-D-printed guns may be more dangerous to their users than targets

3-D-printed guns may be more dangerous to their users than targets
Tiny, but deadly, flaws may be hiding in the parts of this 3-D-printed gun. Justin Pickard/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Despite fears that guns made with 3-D printers will let criminals and terrorists easily make untraceable, undetectable plastic weapons at home, my own experience with 3-D manufacturing quality control suggests that, at least for now, 3-D-printed firearms may pose as much, or maybe even more, of a threat to the people who try to make and use them.

One firearms expert suggested that even the best 3-D-printed might only fire "five shots [before] blowing up in your hand." A weapon with a design or printing defect might blow up or come apart in its user's hand before firing even a single bullet.

As someone who uses 3-D printing in his work and researches quality assurance technologies, I've had the opportunity to see numerous printing defects and analyze what causes them. The problem is not with the concept of 3-D printing, but with the exact process followed to create a specific item. Consumer 3-D printers don't always create high-quality items, and regular people aren't likely to engage in rigorous quality assurance testing before using a 3-D-printed firearm.

Problems are common at home

Many consumer 3-D printers experience a variety of glitches, causing defects in the items they make. At times, an object detaches from the platform it's on while being made, ending up lopsided, broken or otherwise damaged. Flaws can be much harder to detect when the flow of filament – the melted plastic material the item is being made from – is too hot or cold or too fast or slow, or stops when it shouldn't. Even with all of the settings right, sometimes 3-D-printed objects still have defects.

When a poorly made toy or trinket breaks, it can be hazardous. A child might be left with a part that he or she could choke on, for example. However, when a firearm breaks, the result could be even more serious – even fatal. In 2013, agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives tested 3-D-printed guns and found that the quality of materials and manufacturing determined whether a gun would fire multiple rounds successfully, or break apart during or after the first shot.

Home printing also risks that nefarious people might tamper with the design files on a website, publish intentionally defective designs or even create a virus that interferes with the operation of a 3-D printer itself. Hackers may deliberately target 3-D printed guns, for ideological or other reasons, or inadvertently cause defects with more general attacks against 3-D printing systems.

3-D-printed guns may be more dangerous to their users than targets
Some 3-D printing defects are easy to see. Others can be far more difficult to detect. Credit: Jeremy Straub, CC BY

Not up to commercial standards

Commercial manufacturers of guns double-check their designs, test models and perform rigorous examinations to ensure their firearms work properly. Defects still happen, but they're much less likely than with home-printed weapons.

Home printers are not designed to produce the level of consistent quality required for weapon production. They also don't have systems to detect all of the things that could go wrong and make printed weapons potentially dangerous.

This is not to say that 3-D printing itself is unsafe. In fact, many companies use 3-D printing to manufacture parts where safety is critical. Printed parts are used in airplanes and for medical devices, patient-specific surgical instruments, customized time-release drugs, prosthetics and hearing aids. Scientists have even proposed printing scaffolding to grow or repair human body parts.

Solutions to defects, but not ready yet

In time, improvements to popularly available 3-D printers may allow safe production of reliable parts. For instance, emerging technologies could monitor the process of printing and the filament used. The group I work with and others have developed ways to assess parts, both during printing and afterward.

Other researchers are developing ways to prevent malicious defects from being added to existing printing instructions and secure , more generally.

So far, though, these advances are being developed and tested in research laboratories, not incorporated into mass-produced 3-D printers. For the moment, most quality control over 3-D-printed parts is left to the person operating the , or whoever is using the item. Most consumers don't have the technical skills needed to design or perform the appropriate tests, and likely won't ever learn them. Until the machines are more sophisticated, whatever is made with them – whether firearms or other items – isn't guaranteed to be reliable enough to use safely.

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User comments

Jan 07, 2019
LOL. Da Convo from dis-armed Oz, more #FakeNews PC click-bait ex-spurt

Jan 07, 2019
Full metal alloy printers with excellent dimensional accuracy in finished product are now below $100k, retail.

Expect this to drop to $50k in the next 12-18 months.

This means easy access to metal printers.

Guns can then be printed in inconel (extreme grade stainless alloy) -a standard exteme alloy for gun manufacturing, so to speak.

To print a near perfect, requiring little in the way of machining... 9mm handgun, in totality, for less than the price of buying one used.

The manufacturers of guns are already using these printers. They were practically the first to try and order said printers on announcement of their coming release.

MarkForged ended up sending a large first batch of the Metal-x printer to government agencies and you can be that included the military.

Everyone concerned is already all-in. Perfect cheap high quality a-grade printed metal guns at low prices and via pre-existent files....are already here.

No debate required.

Jan 07, 2019
Guns can then be printed in inconel (extreme grade stainless alloy) -a standard exteme alloy for gun manufacturing, so to speak.

Yes they can, but there's more to metals that just the material. Weld two pieces of steel together and strike it with a hammer. Where does it crack? Where does it bend?

Inconel requires correct heat treatment, or it becomes either soft or brittle, and quite likely difficult to machine. Inconel is an "aging" alloy, which means it has to be heated to the correct temperature, held for the correct time, then cooled at the correct rate, then heated again... an additional difficulty is the gas inclusions because the printed and sintered metal is porous, so the microstructure will be quite different from the cast/wrought alloy.

But if you're happy with a pea shooter that pops out low pressure rounds, then a piece of plumbing and a block of wood makes a zip gun just as well. Don't need special alloys to make a "liberator".

Jan 07, 2019
And for someone looking at printing guns for themselves, they also need a supply of suitable metal powders and inert gasses. Metal printers just don't work like plastic printers that operate in the open air - they need an inert environment, or the metal powder catches fire and you get 4th of july in your machine shop.

Meanwhile, some guy in a jungle makes a gun with a hacksaw and a file in the same time it takes you just to print the damn thing.

Jan 07, 2019
This is actually an ammunition problem.

"Better Dying, Through Modern Chemistry"

Please, nobody discourage the phallic worshiping fools. Blowing off a hand or two & half their face will advertise the stupidity of playing with obsolete weaponry.

Jan 07, 2019

Plastic guns blow up in the faces of their users.


Jan 10, 2019
Only four words in this article are important, i.e. " at least for now..."

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