Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Criminal Underbelly of 3D Printing



By Colin Scholes

While 3D printing promises to revolutionise manufacturing and biomedicine, it also stands to benefit criminals through the printing of guns, drugs and counterfeit goods.

While 3D printing promises your children the ability to print their own toys at home, they can also print their own guns. And now all a criminal needs to break into your home is a 3D printer and a photo on social media showing you holding your keys – in and out without a window smashed. This is the darker side of 3D printing.

The promise of 3D printing is that it will revolutionise manufacturing, as consumers will be able to print objects on demand at home. This will avoid the time and cost associated with purchasing a physical object from a supplier. Instead the consumer will simply purchase a graphics file containing the instructions about how to print the object.

The idea of 3D printing has existed in some form since the 1970s, but it is only in the past decade that the technology has really come into its own. However, the social ramifications of this ability to 3D print on demand have yet to be fully appreciated.

The underlying principle of 3D printing is that a three-dimensional object is digitally broken down into a series of thin layers by computer. These layers are then printed consequently on top of each other to build up the object. This has the advantage of being able to build almost any shape imaginable, some of which are not possible with other fabrication approaches.

A variety of printing strategies exist. Extrusion printing heats thermoplastics through jets onto the manifold to build up the layers, with the thermoplastic solidifying as it cools. Laser sintering is common for printing metal alloys in layers that are then laser-heated to sinter them together. There is also lamination printing, which is common with paper and metal foil materials, as well as paster-based printing.

While the majority of commercial 3D printers that most people have experienced are based on plastics, printers exist that can produce objects in ceramics and biological materials. It is even possible to print 3D wooden objects, where the printer cures woodchip particles together through a resin.

Once you have the 3D printer, the key to producing the object is the graphics file. This is generally produced by 3D scanning of the object of interest. Graphics files exist for simple everyday objects such as cutlery through to franchised toys and even sculpture masterpieces. All a person requires to print is the printer’s raw material and the graphics file.

This goes to the core of the issue in 3D printing. Obtaining the graphics file can be achieved by legal means, such as consumer 3D printing websites, or illegally from file-sharing sites in the same manner that movies and music can currently be obtained.

Indeed, 3D printing is believe to present a comparable threat to the licensed toy market as illegal file-sharing of movie and music has been to the entertainment industry. It has been estimated that the toy licensing industry will lose up to $100 billion over the next decade to consumers illegally printing their own themed merchandise. Already consumers can obtain free graphics files for characters from the Disney’s movie Frozen online.

3D printing can also be used to generate counterfeit or inferior products that are, to the untrained eye, indistinguishable from the real product. It is possible to print a mock cycling helmet that appears for all purposes to be identical to a standard cycling helmet. However, the 3D-printed helmet is not made from the hardened polystyrene needed to provide protection, so it fails international standards. The problem is that the consumer won’t realise this until it is most likely too late.

It is not just file-sharing online that should be a concern, as graphic files can also be produced from photographs processed with specialised software. Hence, with a couple of photos or images downloaded from Instagram you’ll be able to duplicate any object. Such freedom can easily be manipulated to print objects of questionable legality, strictly controlled or outright prohibited.

A good example of this occurred recently in The Netherlands, where the master key for the police force handcuffs was duplicated on a 3D printer from a photograph of the original key. Combine smartphone cameras and 3D printers and it becomes incredibly easy to duplicate other people’s personal items. From a criminal perspective, car and house keys would only be the beginning.

Going bigger, it is already possible to print firearms, and graphics files for a .45 calibre pistol can already be obtained online. The majority of firearms that have been printed to date are based on plastics, so they don’t have the durability and accuracy of standard firearms. However, being made almost entirely from plastic they are undetectable by metal detectors, which makes them a serious security concern. The threat of 3D-printed guns has already been raised in the USA in terms of national security.

The engineering firm Solid Concepts have taken it further and produced what is believed to be the first 3D-printed metal gun, demonstrating that the idea of printing firearms on demand is seen as a viable consumer market internationally.

Furthermore, graphic files exist that produce the parts necessary to convert a semi-automatic firearm to fully automatic, while the individual parts of a Bazooka can be fabricated on a 3D printer with do-it-yourself assembly. In countries such as Australia, where firearm possession are strictly controlled, access to a 3D printer with the right graphics file will enable anyone to produce firearms in a completely unlicensed and unregulated manner. The one obstacle to a proliferation of 3D-printed firearms is ammunition, because as yet no one has determined how to print gun powder-containing bullets.

However, chemical 3D printers are on their way, with the University of Glasgow creating a prototype that fabricates drugs and medicines. They aim to revolutionise the pharmaceutical industry by allowing patients to print their own medicine at home. While this is very much in its infancy, once you have a 3D printer that can synthesise pharmaceuticals it won’t be much longer before a criminal chemist works out how to use the technology to print their own cocaine or crystal meth, or worst, toxins such as ricin.

As the application and ability of 3D printing grows, protecting society from the criminal impact of 3D printing will become increasingly more difficult. Once a person has a 3D printer, all they require are the graphic files and the printer’s raw materials to print what they desire. For criminal syndicates it would not be difficult to print illegal firearms on demand or generate counterfeit goods.

Because of their huge benefits in manufacturing productivity in numerous industries, the key to stopping this won’t be the restriction of 3D printers. Rather it will have to be through restrictions on access to the computer graphics files. However, as the explosion in file-sharing of movies and music has shown, restricting data files online is incredibly hard and an unprotected version always become available.

It will be interesting to see how society handles both the potential and threat posed by 3D printing, as well as who and how it will be exploited.

Colin Scholes is a Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.