Software

Guns and 3D printing? A dud but the message still hits home

Reports that you can download and print off a gun from the internet turn out to be wide of the mark. But they nevertheless draw a bead on a worrying issue.

Written at my home office and despatched to TechRepublic at 40Mbps over my office wi-fi system.

Chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel came from a family of engineers and problem-solvers. Perhaps his biggest contribution to human progress has been dynamite, without which we would have been incapable of executing so many large-scale civil engineering projects - such as railways, roads, tunnels, dams and mines.

One of the many other inventions among his 355 patents was cordite - the first smokeless explosive used by the British army. Unfortunately, it is the death wrought by this invention and others for which Nobel is mostly remembered.

His involvement in the arms industry and contribution to thousands of deaths in numerous wars is undeniable, but was that his intent? No one knows for sure.

But what we do know is he was horrified at what he had contributed to, which led him to leave his considerable fortune to the promotion of good through an endowment supporting the now-treasured Nobel Prize.

Strangely, perhaps, Nobel never stipulated that his prizes should afford any recognition for engineering and technology, but I suspect that was symptomatic of his times and the perceptions of the age.

Today, it is clear that all scientific advances would cease without the contributions of both disciplines. And it is also clear that it is not only scientists who inadvertently get blood on their hands - engineers and technologists do to.

No matter what you do or how hard you try, someone somewhere will turn your invention and creativity to the dark side. Obvious examples include guns built into umbrellas, cigarette packets, briefcases, computers, cameras and false fingers.

The list is endless and the ingenuity breathtaking. But the latest turn is perhaps even more worrying. The first major gun component has been created using a 3D printer. Now while this first effort was nowhere near a 3D printer creating a complete firearm, it was enough of a start to cause concern.

So here's the scenario. Someone with a real gun dismantles all its components. Each item is scanned in by a 3D process. Suitable materials - such as plastic and metal - are selected and the printing can start.

Right now the barrel, firing mechanism and breach components pose significant challenges for 3D printing because of the pressures and heat generated by firing. However, there are already examples of plastic barrels that do the job for low-pressure pistols.

In the end, technology has always brought us curses along with the blessings. But the glass is normally full to brimming, and as a result we make positive progress.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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