Weapons a possibility with new 3D printers
Cody Wilson celebrated May Day this year by shooting a gun—it was plastic, made by a printer—a printer just like the two machines currently housed at Keene State College’s Technology Design and Safety Center.
The 25-year-old University of Texas law student spent months hunched over 3D printers before breaking a technology barrier by producing a fully plastic .380 handgun he called”The Liberator.”
More than just a technology innovation boundary was crossed, however. Producing a gun invisible to screening machines by a techno-savvy person who purchases a printer raises questions about guns in American society. Plastic guns are not going away, either. As prices for 3D printers drop, both purchasing and operating the machines becomes more accessible.
The opening of the TDS Center building on KSC’s campus was a much-heralded event on Oct. 12, 2012. The building’s design received the 2013 AIA New Hampshire Merit Award.
It is home to students and faculty from Safety and Occupational Health Applied Sciences, Architecture and Sustainable Product Design and Innovation. It also houses a $50,000 system of printers (including two 3D printers), cleaning systems, a scanner and supplies for students. There is also an additional $8,000 budgeted each year to purchase the support platforms, materials and service for the equipment.
However, the printers, cleaning systems, scanner and first set of supplies were initially all grant- funded through the National Science Foundation, according to Director of the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing at KSC Norman Fisk.
Dr. Lisa Hix teaches Sustainable Product Design and Innovation at KSC and coordinates use of the Dimensions 1200es by Stratasys printers for students at KSC. When asked if the 3D printers could make a gun, Hix said, “I am aware of everything on the news but the material we have on these machines is not strong enough to withstand explosions. I’m sure there are machines out there that could withstand it. I don’t know if there is, but there could be.”
THE PATH TO PRINTING GUNS
Over 30 years ago, 3D printers were called stereolithography, a term still used as models become more complicated, culminating with Wilson’s fully 3D plastic printed firearm that successfully fired multiple bullets this May, according to multiple sources.
The task of making 3D models is not all that difficult, according to Fisk. Fisk explained the process by starting with an idea, like a pizza cutter, sketching it on CAD, [computer-aided design] and transferring the sketch into Solid Works, which displays the idea on a computer screen in three dimensional form.
Finally, hit print and the file will be sent to the 3D printer. The printer takes the file and starts producing the product, like a pizza cutter. There is a base, like a plate, where the product will be printed on.
“The printer takes melted plastic and builds the product layer-by-layer from the bottom up,” he said, “There’s no labor, you can print it at night and come in the next morning and it will be done.”
Depending on the design’s size and detail, printing can take hours to days. A 2x2x1/2 inch piece would take about three hours to make, according to Fisk. A larger piece, like a 10x10x12 inch piece, would take about two days, he said.
Once the printing process is done, the student takes the product out of the printer and submerges it into a “Cleaning System,” also known as the PM Technologies SST Station. This “Cleaning System” removes the support layers from the product and leaves the finished product.
“The 3D printing you get is a part that’s done, just like how you print a word document only this is 3D,” Fisk said.
Also, according to Fisk, students traditionally learn how to use the system from YouTube videos.
When asked if Fisk knew that 3D printers have been able to print firearms, he said, “No, this is the first time this subject has come up. I can’t imagine it printing a workable firearm. Our 3D printers are under the control of our faculty. Our material is plastic, I don’t want to say it’s impossible but I wouldn’t want to hold it in my hands.”
This process is the same process Wilson used to make lower receivers, magazines and eventually the Liberator, all from plastic printed from these machines. A lower receiver is where the serial number is located.
This serial number is used as a tracking device for the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). With plastic printed lower receivers there is no serial number attached, which is against ATF regulations, according to its website.
A gun magazine is an enclosed case where the bullets are held. A gun clip differs from a magazine because it has an open case that holds bullets.
According to Rich Woudenberg, who has a Ph.D. in Polymer Science and teaches polymer science at KSC, “It was only a matter of time before someone decided to do this.”
Regarding Wilson’s 3D plastic gun, “I don’t know if it’s as much as the engineering of it, it’s how smooth the barrel is and how well everything inside is manufactured,” Woudenberg said.
According to Woudenberg, Wilson used a secondary treatment of the fabricated gun. Lines inside the barrel of a gun cause friction, and this friction can cause problems.
“You’re restricting the motion of the bullet and you’re causing friction in the gun barrel,” he said. Woudenberg said too much friction means the gun will explode.
Woudenberg said Wilson made sure the barrel was smooth by doing two things. He kept the chamber of the 3D printer at a high enough temperature so the plastic stayed somewhat molten, not fully molten, but enough where it might flow and smooth out some of the rough edges. He also used a post-treatment with a solvent called acetone, a common chemical that is often found in nail polish remover. Woudenberg said Wilson put the gun inside a chamber with acetone vapor and it partially dissolved the material right on the surface, allowing the plastic to flow and to smooth out. “It’s like an ice-cube melting; making it smooth but still stays hard underneath,” he said.
Woudenberg said ABSplus plastic, the plastic used on the TDS printers, “has enough cohesive strength to be able to withstand [the impact of the firing pin hitting the bullet].”
Former gunsmith and now Journalism professor at KSC, Mark Timney, disagreed. According to Timney, it is not how smooth the barrel is that would be the problem. “Unless it was completely blocked, the bullet would just go right out of the barrel.” If the barrel was completely blocked, the gun would explode, Timney said.
The problem, Timney says, is the pressure in the chamber. “When you fire a gun, there’s a lot of pressure in the chamber with only one exit—the barrel.” Pressure pushes up against the back, the sides and the bullet, causing the bullet to fly out the barrel. If the plastic is not strong enough to hold the pressure, the gun will explode. “I would never hold one in my hands and fire it,” Timney said.
Tyler Boucher, a member of Samson Gun Manufacturing, said 3D printers will not take business away from him, but they actually have helped him and his employees. “We have a 3D printer. We use it for prototyping…Even the [3D plastic printed] firearms that are legitimate, I don’t see it affecting our business,” he said.
Boucher said gun manufacturers use a 3D printer to print out different ideas for guns, everything from accessories to displays. “They [people] don’t understand it’s not illegal to make your own firearm… Make a firearm, tell the officials [AFT: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] and put a name on it and it’s legal… It’s simply a hunk of plastic until somebody makes it into a weapon,” he said.
“GUN CONTROL’S A FANTASY”
In a documentary by Motherboard, an online magazine and video channel called 3D Printed Guns, published March 25, Wilson explained why he started producing lower receivers and magazines for an AR-15 using an OBJECT 3D Printer. Wilson said he is advocating for an open source production of 3D printed firearms.
Timney said this is where the threat lies, in the development of plastic lower receivers. “ATF says the lower receiver is the gun,” said Timney. This lower receiver is where the serial number is located, which means without a serial number, the gun cannot be tracked.
The AR-15 Semi-Automatic Rifle has received much media attention this year, given its use by Adam Lanza in the Newtown, Conn., school shootings and James Homes in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings. Wilson has made lower receivers and magazines out of plastic for the AR-15. He also put the blueprints on how to make them on his website, defdist.org. On this website, at least hundreds of people have uploaded and downloaded plans for 3D printable parts of guns, according to Wilson in a documentary by Motherboard.
“Gun control for us is a fantasy. In a way people are saying you’re being unrealistic about printing a gun. I think it’s more unrealistic not, especially going forward, to think you could ever control this technology,” Wilson said in the documentary.
The growth of this technology is what Stratasys is relying on. Stratasys is one of the leading manufacturers of 3D printers in the United States. Its dual headquarters are located in Eden Prairie, Minn., and Rehovot, Israel, and was founded in 1989, according to their website. It has designed both the OBJECT printer Wilson used as well as the two Dimensions 1200es printers, each costing $610 on the Stratasys’s website, which are in the TDS Center at KSC.
The big question is whether or not a firearm can be printed on the Dimensions 1200es printer. According to research, it hasn’t been tried on the Dimensions 1200es printers, or at least not recorded. When calling the Stratasys phone number, a technical support member who identified himself as “Joe,” the Dimensions 1200es printer created more durable plastic models then the OBJECT printer that Wilson used. The Dimensions 1200es printer only used ABSplus plastic, while the OBJECT printer uses multiple types of plastic, some more durable than others, according to the Stratasys’s website. Several sources interviewed for this story questioned if ABSplus plastic could withstand the heat of a firearm, as well as the firing of a gun. After looking up the specs for the ABSplus plastic offered on the Stratasys website, it shows that models can withstand up to 204 degrees Fahrenheit without any issues of melting or cracking. ABS plastic is a general category of plastics. Stratasys sells six different types of ABS plastics, ABSplus plastic is one.
According to Tyler Boucher, an employee at Samson Gun Manufacturing (a manufacturing business that produces firearm parts and accessories), a handgun doesn’t get nearly that hot. “If you turn on your faucet to all the way hot, it still wouldn’t be as hot [as a handgun],” he said. Therefore, the ABSplus plastic should hypothetically be able to withstand the heat of a firearm, but the question is, can it withstand the actual firing of the gun?
Technically speaking the answer is yes. Wilson used ABS plastic to make 15 of the 16 parts of his Liberator pistol, according to DNews at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IylGx-48TUI. The only non-plastic item was the firing pin which was a common household nail. DNews is a Youtube channel that is “dedicated to satisfying your curiosity and to bringing you mind-bending stories and perspectives you won’t find anywhere else,” according to the website. Stratasys sells six different types of ABS plastic, according to the website. As previously stated, ABSplus plastic is “durable enough to perform virtually the same as production parts,” according to Stratasy’s website. Since Wilson used ABS plastic to make his successful 3D plastic printed firearm, it appears that ABSplus plastic can withstand the firing of a 3D plastic printed firearm.
Professor Hix said she doesn’t think it’s possible to make a working 3D printed firearm off a Dimensions 1200es printer. She said the real problem lies in the actual firing pin hitting the bullet. “This material is not strong enough to withstand that explosion. If anyone tried to print a weapon on this machine and use it, it will explode in their face. It’s not possible [to print a firearm] with this machine, just this machine. You would have to heavily modify them with high tensile strength steel material. They [the ones doing the printing] would have to have knowledge in firearms,” she said.
Fisk agreed with Hix on the material aspect. “There is an illusion in the printing,” he said, “It’s still plastic, not metal, even if it appears strong.”
THREAT LEVEL OF A 3D GUN ON THE KSC CAMPUS
According to Timney, the 3D printed firearm of Wilson’s was just a glorified version of a zip gun. “Zip guns were used by kids in the 50s. It’s a pipe and a bullet and a rubber band. At most they have one shot with this gun,” he said.
Timney said the threat level of this 3D printed firearm is low, considering alternative methods of weapons. Timney, while he said a 3D gun could kill someone, said it could likely only fire one shot before reloading. “I would be more afraid of someone with a knife than this gun. You don’t have to reload a knife,” he said.
The threat is also more to the gun’s holder than the intended victim. “You might get it to fire once but it could blow up in your face,” he said. Timney added that a 3D gun is impractical, taking too many hours on the 3D printers to make one gun piece. In the simplest designed gun, a Glock17, Timney said it has 89 parts. The gun Wilson designed has, at most, five parts, Timney explained.
However, Director of Campus Safety, Amanda Warman, said the threat is high for the person holding the weapon, as well as anyone around them. “We maintain our no weapons on campus…. Our officers have Kevlar vests… A firearm is a firearm… It presents the same protection problem, the same threat,” she said.
Even if it’s a model gun, she said, “If students have them and they have them out, people aren’t going to know they’re fake. And they actually endanger themselves.”
Warman cited the countless accidental shootings by police officers when they believed that the perpetrator they were apprehending had a firearm when it was really a water gun or a remote. [According to Kevin Johnson from USA Today, in 2007, there were 391 killings by police officers]. With a model firearm, this could possibly increase the accidental gunfire by police officers, if model firearms become more accessible, according to Warman.
Hix agreed with Warman, “If young people think they can do this, it’s a danger to society. It’s like a kid holding a lit firecracker and not letting go.”
Currently, there is no supervision of the 3D printers and there are no cameras in the printing room, Warman said. She said she is also aware students prop open the door to the printers to save time from having to get a professor to open it every time. However, Warman said that students and faculty do look out for others’ safety, especially in a building with “safety” in the title.
“We’ve talked to the staff and students in the building about this [propping the door open]. Of all the places on campus, they [the TDS Center] are the ones to have it [safety precautions]. If somebody is in there and they are trying to get on the printer will they even know how to use it? We rely on information from a variety of sources from students to building staff (they will look out for the danger). Students are concerned and precautious about their safety,” she said. When using the printers, procedures appeared minimal when this reporter went inside the TDS Center.
Students can only access the printers when they demonstrate to a staff member knowledge of CAD, Solid Works and the 3D printer, Hix said.
As for students on the KSC campus, as well as everyone else, access to the printers in the TDS Center should be secure because the room where the printers are kept is behind a double locked door requiring a key and a pass-code to open.
However, once students are using the printers, the doors remain open for students to enter and leave freely. The computers used to upload and design models for the printer are located in the same room, which means students do not have to enter or leave the printing room when designing and creating models.
Also, “That room (where the 3D printers are) is faculty ID card accessible,” Fisk said.
No one has tried to make a model firearm yet, according to Hix. She said she is aware some of her students in her class work for gun manufacturers. “I have a lot of people in my program that are hunters and they like guns. Some work for gun companies now. I’ve even told them they can’t draw firearms on the computers,” she said.
According to Hix there is no real way of tracking students’ work if they do not put their name on it. When creating a model, students save the file the same way a student would save a word document, said Hix. Students, according to Hix, typically name their file with their own name or the name of the product. “I know everyone’s designs whether they put their names or not,” said Hix. The files themselves cannot be tracked back to the original designer any other way than putting their name on the file, according to Hix.
THE PRINTERS’ VALUE
These printers are not all threat and no good. According to Hix, the printers play a vital role in the development of KSC’s students’ careers. “There’s a high value added for the students’ education in terms of their improving their three dimensional skills or to help them develop them more quickly. This process is widely used in design and development students need to know to work with it and use it,” she said.
Fisk agreed, “We are happy to have three-D printers here. It’s a great educational tool.”
Recently, various legal issues have emerged in regard to printing firearms in the comfort of the home or office. Wilson did not have the easiest of times printing his firearms. Actually, he had his printers reclaimed at the end of September in 2012 by Stratasys who said that they would not be involved in illegal matters, according to Huffington Post. Since Wilson did not have a manufacture’s license to make firearms, it would be technically illegal for him to make firearms, even if they are plastic, according to the article in the Huffington Post. This didn’t stop Wilson though; he ended up using a friend’s printer and made history, according to Motherboard’s documentary.
While concerns were raised about a 3D plastic printed firearm likely blowing up in someone’s face, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) conducted its own study and found this to be true. On Nov. 13, news broke that ATF produced “its own version of the Liberator,” according to Huffington Post. A video shows a working 3D plastic printed firearm and then repeated images of a 3D printed firearm blowing up. However, the ATF used different types of plastic. The ATF version that blew up used Visijet plastic. The gun that fired successfully was of ABS plastic, according to Huffington Post.
Wilson used ABS plastic in his Liberator pistol. According to Huffington Post, ATF officials believe that ABS plastic could potentially be used to make automatic firearms in the near future.
Also, on Nov. 13, the ATF provided a press release on 3D plastic printed firearms. In its question and answer section, the last question concerns 3D plastic printed firearms. To the question, “Is a firearm illegal if it is made of plastic?” the ATF answered yes with: “It is unlawful for any person to produce a firearm as proscribed in 18 U.S.C. 922(p).” The federal code numbers reference the soon-to-expire Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988. The Undetectable Firearms Act was first established in 1988 to prohibit ownership of firearms undetectable by walk-through metal detectors and unrecognizable as firearms through x-rays commonly used in airports. It was renewed for another ten years in 2003.
U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, Democrat from New York, has proposed The Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act that resembles the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act with some updates to reflect technological innovations. This Act will include all of its former 1988 Act, as well as extending the prohibition to include undetectable firearm receivers and magazines. As of now, the bill, H.B. 1474 and S. 1149, has been considered by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate; however, it has not been voted on and is still pending, according to govtrack.us.
If this Act is passed, it will prohibit the manufacturing, importing, sale, shipment, delivery, possession, transfer and receiving of any undetectable firearms which will include 3D plastic printed firearms. Both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives referred the bill to congressional committee on June 12, according to govtrack.us. Both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives said the bill only has a one percent chance of passing, according to govtrack.us. Samantha Slater, a member of Israel’s staff, provided Israel’s statement on the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act, “Security checkpoints, background checks and gun regulations will do little good if criminals can print plastic firearms at home and bring those firearms through metal detectors with no one the wiser. We must extend the ban on plastic firearms before it is set to expire at the end of this year. That’s why I’ve introduced the ‘Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act,’ which would extend the ban on plastic firearms and includes homemade, plastic high-capacity magazines and receivers as well.”
Without waiting for congress to decide what to do about printing firearms, Philadelphia has taken legal action into their own hands. According to Huffington Post, Philadelphia made it officially illegal to print plastic firearms on a 3D printer as of Nov. 26 unless that person is in possession of a firearms manufacture license. Huffington Post said the new law states, “No person shall use a three-dimensional printer to create any firearm, or any piece or part thereof, unless such person possesses a license to manufacture firearms under Federal law.” It is also illegal to own any part of a plastic printed firearm, according to Huffington Post.
Attempts to interview President of KSC Anne Huot started on Sept. 23. Ann Gagnon, executive assistant to the president, replied on Sept. 26 that President Huot said, “Her calendar is very full and she will not be able to grant an interview.” On Oct. 10, attempts were made to interview President Huot again asking for “a comment on this subject” and for “a short 10 minute talk either in person or by phone.” Gagnon replied on Oct. 11 and said, “She is not able to book an interview with you. As she is still very new to the College, we receive many more requests for meetings than we can reasonably book.”
After months of preparation and hours on the computer, Cody Wilson broke down walls in technology, politics and safety. With the invention of a fully 3D plastic printed firearm, Wilson paved a new way to get into the history books. While the TDS Center is already recognized and lauded for its environmental achievements, its 3D printers may push new policy ground on student and faculty projects.
According to Warman, “I think you need to know the capabilities, especially if it can produce firearms. If you can three-D a firearm, then you can print a machete.”