Pandora's Box

AP Images/Austin American Statesman/Jay Janner

On a clear day this past May, Cody Wilson stood at a firing range just south of Austin, Texas. The BBC crew he’d invited stood a few feet away as the 25-year-old University of Texas law student adjusted his earplugs and sized up his target—a mound of dirt off in the distance. He raised a small handgun, pulled the trigger, and a .380 caliber shot rang out, kicking up a cloud of dust. The pistol Wilson held was made of black-and-white plastic and looked like a cheap children’s toy. What had drawn the BBC was that the gun, which Wilson dubbed the “Liberator,” had been created with an $8,000 3-D printer bought used on eBay. A self-described “techno-anarchist,” Wilson is on a quest to prove that new technology is rapidly changing what we can hope to regulate—from information and ideas to physical objects. The proof is that anyone with an Internet connection, a computer, and a 3-D printer can now manufacture a gun.

Three-dimensional printing is Star Trek fantasy conjured into reality. Bre Pettis, a founder of MakerBot, the leading manufacturer of personal 3-D printers, envisions a world in which everything from shoes to hearing aids is produced in our homes for next to nothing. He dreams of kids growing up with 3-D printers as he did with an Apple II+ in the 1980s—hacking, experimenting, creating stuff we can’t even conceive of today. Like those early computers, 3-D printers look utilitarian and conspicuously low-tech; black and beige boxes with gears and cables exposed, they resemble inside-out microwave ovens. Fire one up, though, and its true nature is revealed: The machine buzzes to life, its print arms whizzing about in precise concentric patterns, then spits out a three-dimensional object.

Two years ago, carpenter Richard Van As was at home outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, when the table saw he was using slipped, mutilating much of his right hand. In the emergency room, he had an epiphany. “I was going to make a set of fingers for myself,” Van As says. “The more people told me it was impossible, the more I decided that it was possible.”

When he was released from the hospital, Van As scoured YouTube for ideas and came across an unlikely collaborator: a prop maker in Washington state named Ivan Owen whose specialty was constructing enormous, multi-jointed mechanical hands. The two started talking, but the distance made working together difficult. They reached out to MakerBot, sensing the potential 3-D printing might hold for their project, and the company agreed to donate two machines. Soon the men were sending digital blueprints over the Internet and printing out their objects. Together, they created a prosthetic so precise that it could catch a ball in midair. They called it the Robohand. Traditional prosthetics that approximate human movement can cost $10,000 per finger; the Robohand cost less than $200 in parts.

Then Van As did something bold: He posted his prosthetic blueprints to Thingiverse, MakerBot’s online design community, for free. Kids from all over the world born with conditions like amniotic band syndrome—a congenital disorder in which fibrous bands wrap around the fingers in utero, choking off blood flow and requiring amputation after birth—began downloading and building the Robohand. With the device, some of these kids were able to grasp an object for the first time in their life. As they get older and outgrow their Robohands, the digital files can be adjusted using computer software, and larger hands printed.

The MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer (AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

Of course, the primary use of 3-D printers will be to create quotidian items: toothbrushes and toilet-paper holders, chess pieces and iPhone cases, wrenches and showerheads, toys, pens, birdhouses, model airplanes. They will no doubt produce a lot of schlock, too. Custom bobblehead dolls have been a perennial favorite since the devices began to go mainstream, and it’s not hard to picture the landfills of the future overflowing with yesterday’s home-printed novelties. Yet researchers have already found that just by producing common household items, a 3-D printer will pay for itself in less than a year. “With the exponential growth of free designs and expansion of 3-D printing, we are creating enormous potential wealth for everyone,” says Joshua Pearce, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Michigan Technological University. Those who work closely with 3-D printers also see potential for the technology in an unexpected area: food. In theory, packets of soy protein, meat, or cookie dough could be loaded into 3-D printers. With recipes programmed from the Internet, you could “print” a finished meal right onto a plate. This may sound about as appetizing as the dehydrated ice cream famously eaten by astronauts. But those nutritional building blocks would be cheap and shelf-stable for decades. With more than eight billion people soon to be vying for Earth’s dwindling resources, 3-D printing could become an important part of feeding future generations.

The age in which a 3-D printer sits in every living room may be here sooner than we think. Last month, Stratasys—one of the largest industrial 3-D printer companies in the world—purchased MakerBot for half a billion dollars. From 2008 to 2011, personal 3-D printer sales averaged an astounding 346 percent growth, according to industry analysts Wohlers Associates. This June, Staples became the first major retailer to carry the machines in its stores. Three-D printers are becoming cheaper by the day; a sophisticated model can now be had for less than a thousand dollars.

This growth foretells drastic changes in global manufacturing: The factories of the 21st century will be our homes. Digital files containing the blueprints for millions of objects will be bought and sold on the Internet, downloaded and printed on our personal machines. Last month, MakerBot released a scanner that lets you create a blueprint of anything you place inside it—a digital file that you can send straight to your 3-D printer. It brings with it the fantastical ability to make a copy of many of the things you see around you.

But when 3-D printers arrive in our homes, will we be ready for them? The Internet has already played havoc with intellectual property—think of all the songs that have been illegally shared. What will businesses do when they no longer hold a monopoly on manufacturing, when the digital blueprints for tangible things are uploaded and downloaded from millions of devices around the world? The number of people employed in manufacturing in the United States has dropped dramatically in the past decade. Will the 3-D printer accelerate that decline? Will it upend manufacturing in developing countries, disrupting economies that depend on cheap mass labor? And, oh, yes, how will we stop every garage from becoming a factory for 3-D printed guns?


To understand why 3-D printers are so revolutionary, one must first understand how they work. Traditional manufacturing is a process of controlled destruction. Lasers, saws, mills, lathes, and drills—the all-stars of industrial machinery—take a big piece of something and whittle it down. Three-D printing flips the process; it is additive instead of subtractive. In the most common 3-D printers, a material—usually a plastic—is heated to its melting point and extruded through a nozzle, like frosting piped onto a cake. The layers build upon one another from the bottom up. Before you know it, the build surface contains a three-dimensional object. Crucially, this process is driven by computer software that designs and manipulates digital 3-D models that can be found on the Internet. Changing designs is as simple as changing a document’s font on your computer.

Three-dimensional printing isn’t new. Chuck Hull, founder of the company 3D Systems, now one of the biggest producers of the devices in the world, invented what became known as “additive manufacturing” nearly 30 years ago. Back then, the machines were prized for their ability to quickly give engineers and designers an object to hold in their hands instead of relying solely on 2-D blueprints. Ford was an early adopter and used the machines to create the negatives for steel-part casting molds. Today, companies like Boeing and General Electric use 3-D printers the size of cars to produce everything from turbines to jet cabins. Many of the non-flight-critical final parts in Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner were made exclusively using 3-D printers.

Some of the technology’s most remarkable breakthroughs have appeared in the field of medicine. Researchers are loading up animal cells suspended in a bio gel to create rat kidneys capable of filtering blood and producing urine. Stents are printed from bioresorbable plastics that disappear as you heal, and model hearts based on CT scans allow surgeons to perform risky procedures on replicas before attempting them on patients. Researchers are now even printing human cells. Next June, the International Space Station will get its own 3-D printer to build replacement parts in orbit instead of shipping them from Earth—NASA, not surprisingly, also has plans to begin printing astronauts’ food, including pizza.

The small-scale changes the technology has spurred have been equally striking. Dentists are using the devices to churn out tooth crowns and other customized dental work. Architecture firms are transforming blueprints into scale models in minutes rather than days.

The key to the 3-D printer is more than its many applications. Because of the printer’s unprecedented ability for rapid prototyping, the machines allow companies to “fail faster,” in the words of Hod Lipson, associate professor of robotics at Cornell University and founder of one of the first university 3-D printing labs. This, he says, will lead to untold innovations: “It allows people to try new things. A lot of people will fail, but they will fail faster, and the cost of experimentation will decrease.”

For much of their history, 3-D printers were like the computer mainframes of the 1960s and 1970s—very large, very powerful, and very expensive. Then around 2005, expiring industrial patents and a pair of open-source university projects—Lipson’s Fab@Home and a similar project named RepRap at the University of Bath in England—combined to drive down prices to the point that the technology became accessible to everyday consumers. “These two open-source 3-D printers were cheap, but they were also hackable,” Lipson says. “That allowed people to take it apart, improve it, play around with the materials, and that’s where it really took off.”

Materials long thought of as too advanced to manipulate with 3-D printers—ABS plastic and nylon, ceramics, even steel and titanium (“what the big boys use,” as Lipson says)—began to show up in common industrial applications and trickled down to home use. Thingiverse blossomed, allowing owners of 3-D printers to discuss and share what they had created. “It’s been a really wonderful adventure seeing the community grow,” Bre Pettis says. “Being able to develop better and better machines and to get to the place we’re at now where we’re actually having an impact on the way the world thinks about things.”

(Rex Features via AP Images)

Architectural designs made from sugar using a 3D printer


Before Shawn Fanning founded Napster out of a Northeastern University dorm room in 1999, the music industry was on top of the world. Pop radio minted money. Revenue for the world’s biggest record labels was $38 billion—more at the time than the combined income of Apple and Microsoft. In two years, Napster devastated the music industry. Illegal file-sharing exploded. Profit margins evaporated. Musicians lost royalties. Post-Napster, all it took to acquire a song was an Internet connection and a computer. An entire generation came of age with the notion that Internet freedom meant downloading anything they wanted for free. Three-D printing is Napster writ large. A factory sitting in your home means that everything normally bought at a store can be searched online, downloaded, and printed with a click of a mouse.

“There will be an industry in the next couple of years that will be fundamentally changed by consumer access to 3-D printing,” says Michael Weinberg of the open-Internet group Public Knowledge. Already, nearly all the objects in our modern offices are made using 3-D printed prototypes. “Your mouse, keyboard, chair, tape holder, coffee cup,” Hod Lipson says, then rattles off a dozen more common items. Combine this with the Internet’s most notorious and effective utility—piracy—and you’ve got a recipe for the widespread reproduction of almost anything—from cheap trinkets to patented industrial components. Take, for example, the much-maligned Crocs shoe, which is made entirely of plastic. As with music piracy pre-Napster, the product is already counterfeited for cheap, resulting in losses to the company of about $10 million a year. But 3-D printing will make this possible on an entirely different scale. It’s likely that someone has reverse engineered that design and 3-D printed a perfect replica already, in his size, for free. All it would take is for that digital file to make it online. Then anyone can have a new set of Crocs without bothering to go to the store—or paying the manufacturers. Even at this early stage, websites are popping up to sell the digital replicas of designer furniture and jewelry, all for fractions of their retail prices, to be printed at home for only the cost of the materials. “I have students who in one hand are carrying a jail-broken iPhone with songs they downloaded,” Lipson says, “and the other hand is raised, and they ask what if somebody steals my design and 3-D prints it?” It’s not just makers of small-scale items who are in trouble. We won’t be printing patented jet engines in our home garages, but can the same be said for companies in developing nations?

The implications for work are just as stark. It’s difficult to envision how the printer won’t accelerate the decrease in the number of people employed in American manufacturing, which currently stands at 12 million but has dropped by more than 5 million in the past decade. “I can have on operator running ten machines building all sorts of stuff. He’s a highly technical worker making a nice salary, but he’s replacing a whole slew of low-cost workers,” says Michael Hayes, head of advanced research at Boeing.

In the near term, however, some argue the technology could prove to be a boon for Western post-industrial economies. “One of the first impacts this will have is to re-shore some work,” says Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. “You’ll find businesses are able to spring up based on the availability of 3-D printing that you would have never expected to return.” These first businesses, perhaps counterintuitively, will produce simple, customized items—bracelets, toys—things that aren’t worth the cost of shipping great distances. Yet they will take advantage of the technology’s unique ability for “mass customization”: a bracelet with exactly what you want to say on it, a toy with your face on it. That will mean less reliance on outsourced manufacturing—which will in turn disrupt the economies of big-exporter nations. “From an American economic perspective, that is a net gain,” Paul says.

Countries like China and India have been able to rapidly grow their economies by keeping down the cost of labor, a cycle that has in turn moved most of our low- and medium-skilled manufacturing jobs overseas. But 3-D printing doesn’t rely on low-skilled labor in the same way. A factory full of the machines can pivot from making one part to a different one overnight and can be managed by a handful of machine operators. It may not happen in the next five years, but manufacturing in the future will be less concerned with the cost of labor and more sensitive to factors like material cost and shipping. This will disrupt the low-wage factory model as global demand for cheap labor reverts back to demand for local production. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Chinese government has pledged to invest $245 million in 3-D printing over the next seven years.

What no one knows, however, is what impact the 3-D printer will have on high-skilled industrial workers. At the end of 2011, skilled-manufacturing jobs in this country commanded 38 percent greater monthly earnings compared to other sectors of the economy. These jobs have only modest barriers to entry—most don’t require a college degree—meaning that the skilled-manufacturing sector is one of the last bastions of true American mobility. It’s these “middle-skill” jobs that may ultimately be most at risk from 3-D printing. “I don’t know anyone in the manufacturing movement who’s a Luddite, who says, ‘No, we don’t want to embrace technology,’ especially if they think it is going to make their company more competitive,” Paul says. Lipson talks about a local business in Ithaca, New York, that had been using 3-D printing technology. When he asked what kind of operators were running its machines—were they Ph.D.s, mechanical engineers?—he received an unexpected answer. “Somebody can show up on time, clean and sober,” the owner told him, “and they can operate this machine.”


Cory Doctorow, the influential futurist and founder of the website BoingBoing, likes to say that our world is now “made of computers.” Three-dimensional printers are just the beginning of an era in which most things will be digitized and connected to the Internet, outside the reach of what their creators and our governments tell us we can do with them. Long before The Anarchist’s Cookbook, information with the potential to do us harm—bomb schematics, instructions for a homemade Saturday-night special—has been available for those looking for it. But the reason Napster was such a seismic force was that it made copying and sharing easy. After Cody Wilson fired the Liberator, the news raced through the media. “We’re facing a situation where anyone—a felon, a terrorist—can open a gun factory in their garage,” Senator Charles Schumer intoned. Headlines from Forbes to The Washington Post warned of the coming threat to gun control. Those who had never even heard of 3-D printing were suddenly aware that it was now possible to download a file and produce a firearm. But the Liberator is only the harbinger of a much larger change.

When I asked Bre Pettis how we could nurture 3-D printing for good and protect ourselves from its dark side, he was ambivalent. “You can look at any technology and there are always challenges,” he says. “We make MakerBots with the intention that they are going to be used for positive and wonderful uses. We make it so if you upload deadly weapons to Thingiverse, the community flags them, and they come down. So that’s how we’re addressing it.”

That’s not really an answer.

“The only real solution is to get away from the technology and focus on what you are really worried about,” Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge says. “If you are worried about printing guns, make it illegal to manufacture guns at home. Or force people to get licensed in some way. Then, if someone creates a gun at home, prosecute them for violating the law.” He admitted this wasn’t a satisfying answer either.

For more than a decade, we’ve struggled with the question of how to tap the Internet’s great potential while safeguarding against its many perils. But it’s also true that a system of responsible control—part regulation and part social conditioning—has emerged, however sheepishly. As Weinberg says, we will need to be practical, passing laws to protect us—regulating undetectable plastic firearms or banning their home creation altogether. But the bigger step will ultimately be to adjust our attitudes about technology’s dangers. It will be about deciding as a culture what we are willing to accept.

Businesses will have to do the same. That much became clear in the aftermath of the last great technological disruption. This year, the record industry grew for the first time in a decade—from $16.4 billion to $16.5 billion. It’s still less than half its size before Napster. The music business fought ferociously to defend its traditional profit models, to challenge emerging technologies instead of learning from them, and for what? In the process, it alienated a generation of potential consumers and put itself at the mercy of digital distributors like iTunes, now the biggest music seller in the world, that saw a market and pounced. In the end, though, the changes were probably inevitable; illuminated manuscripts, by analogy, didn’t stand much of a chance once the printing press came along.

So what of Cody Wilson and his 3-D printed handgun? For now, the government is responding the old-fashioned way. The State Department forced Wilson to pull the file for his 3-D gun from the Internet. Relying on its authority to regulate international arms, the department made the case that because the gun was posted online, anyone in the world could download it, which violated foreign-sale laws. But the State Department has neither the charter nor the manpower to patrol every file across the Web. After being taken offline, the Liberator’s blueprints have popped up on mirror sites across the world, including on the influential file-sharing website The Pirate Bay. “The shit gets downloaded,” Wilson told me. ”I can be the bogeyman forever. But the gun is still out there, and we won.”

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