3D printing: utopian dream - or a boost for pirates and terrorists?

3D printing is coming to the masses, but there are already concerns that it will be put to illicit uses

LAST UPDATED AT 14:57 ON Thu 4 Oct 2012

3D PRINTING is gradually making its way into the mainstream. Machines that can create objects at the click of a button are increasingly being used by companies and are even available to the general public. Disney is the latest company to announce that it is using 3D printers – claiming it has allowed them to create a real-world prototype toy within minutes, rather than having to wait for a factory to be retooled.

But as the dream of creating 3D objects in your own home becomes a reality, critics have warned of security risks around the new technology. So what are the dangers and how exactly does 3D printing work?

HOW DOES 3D PRINTING WORK?

3D printers use an 'additive' technology, meaning they build objects layer by layer from the bottom up. Once a design is ready to print, specialised software ‘slices’ the object into thin horizontal layers. The printer-head then moves over the build area in the machine, depositing material layer by layer until the object is finished. Printers can use different materials such as plastic, metal, glass and ceramics in a range of different colours.

WHO IS USING 3D PRINTING?

For the last few decades carmakers and aerospace companies have used industrial 3D printers to make parts. The medical industry has also been using them for custom hearing aids and invisible braces, while architects and consumer electronics companies use the technology to produce models and prototypes. But 3D printers are now making their way into the mainstream. Last month in New York, MakerBot opened what is thought to be the first store of its kind to sell 3D printers to the general public for use in their home. The MakerBot Replicator 2 can be bought for $2,199.

THE NEW FRONTIER OF PIRACY?

While technology lovers have hailed mass 3D printing as an invention that will change the world, some people in the manufacturing industry are seeing it as a potential threat. In a similar way to illegally downloading music and films, they are concerned that users will download designs and create their trademarked products at home. File-sharing site The Pirate Bay already hosts a limited number of 3D file blueprints and has claimed "physibles" would be the "next step in copying". “The expectation – and it's a valid one – is that home 3D printing will get so good that the items it produces will rival simple items we now buy”, says TechCrunch. "Right now a Makerbot takes a few hours to print out the most rudimentary of products, but what happens when those hours dwindle to minutes?" it asks. "What happens when we can print an Ikea silverware set in our kitchens?"

A PRINTABLE WEAPONS MACHINE?

It's not just toys and crockery that people are printing out. A US project to create a printable gun was derailed yesterday after Stratasys, the company supplying the 3D printer, withdrew it. Defense Distributed, the group behind the project, had planned to share 3D weapon blueprints online but Stratasys said that it did not allow its printers "to be used for illegal purposes". Marc Goodman, head of the Future Crimes Institute, told the BBC that US government laws on the manufacture of guns will need quick revision to catch up with the age of 3D printing. "In this case, this was being done very overtly and trying to prove a point. I am far more concerned about the people who aren't publicising it," said Goodman, who predicts that 3D printing could be the next battleground in the fight against organised crime and terrorism. · 

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