forensics 3D Printing

If You Can’t Stop it, Trace it — Personalised Forensics and 3D Printing

By August 15, 2013. Featured, Industry Insights

Earlier this year, Cody Wilson’s Defence Distributed scared many of us with the potential menace of putting a gun “anywhere there’s a computer and an Internet connection”. The varied response – from advocating an outright ban of 3D printed guns to finding ways to detect firearm-like shapes prior to print – somehow missed the point: we can no longer stop the printing of guns. Instead, agencies should quickly focus their limited resources to make the new technology work for them argues Andre Wegner.

3D Printed GunIn a much vaunted tale, that gets a quick recap here by way of introduction, it is now widely known that within two days of the successful trial of a 3D printed gun, and subsequent release of the “Liberator” designs by Defence Distributed earlier this year, it had been downloaded more than 100,000 times. By the time the State Department had issued a take-down notice citing export control violations, the files had already permeated the web and were freely available on dozens of other sites, including Pirate Bay. The upshot — in terms of 3D printable gun designs, the cat is truly out of the bag, and unlikely to ever get (or be put) back in.

Given how relatively easy it is to build a 3D printer, simple access to 3D printable gun designs could indeed be worrying news. At their most basic level, 3D printers are but a few stepper motors and a heat coil. Not that it’s that simple in reality, but the real possibility that you could buy all the items needed to make a home 3D printer off the shelf is enough to immediately render impotent any attempt to stop the printing of guns. Banning machines or designs, or some form of Digital Rights Management software (always problematic as it hardly ever works) to catch a gun design before it’s printed are all doomed to failure.

3D printing is only going to become more accessible, making a world awash with homemade plastic guns a real possibility. How then are lawmakers to react? Calmly, says Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge, a leading researcher on the topic: “there is no such thing as a 3D printing-specific solution to the problem of plastic guns… any attempt to address these concerns should focus on plastic guns, not 3D printers.”

And yet 3D printing-specific solutions may be able to help law enforcement organizations, not hinder them. By building on 3D printing’s core advantage – that is that complexity is free and each design printed can be unique – each gun printed could be slightly different from the next. This has already led researchers to introduce the possibility of traceable information embedded on the outside and on the inside of 3D printed objects. Translating this opportunity to the problem of 3D printed guns means: gun forensics could, in future, be personalised.

the liberator a4bvr5 3D printed gun

The parts of each gun or rifle can be uniquely marked and subsequently traced if personalised forensics is applied.

Personalised forensics means that those guns could not only be linked back to the designer, but the place at which they were fabricated. Theoretically, it also means that the bullets shot by such guns could be traced back to the same locations. Soon forensics teams would be able to link back bullets not only to the gun from which they were fired (for which they still need the gun) but also to the person who made the gun, who designed it, as well as additional information that could lead investigators to the identity of the shooter.

Armed with these opportunities, agencies would no longer have a reason to fear 3D printing. Each fresh 3D printing technology development, such as news of 3D printable electronics, would be warmly embraced, leading to new possibilities to track down guns, printers and designs that have been used illegally and the users thereof. Coupled with updated traditional forensics, such as identifying the chemical and mechanical properties represented in 3D printed guns, personalized forensics has the potential to safeguard us from 3D printed gun misuse in a way that driving the 3D printing of guns underground never would.

  • Christopher Reyes

    It would seem to me that you are opening a Pandora’s box of privacy issues by now being able to track EVERYTHING ever made or printed to the source manufacturing item. Not to mention that the information embedded would require registration and tracking of all those sources. I shouldn’t have to be registered to print Yoda just because I have the possibility of printing a gun.

  • Sid Sandback

    Andre, Does this mean you are also advocating these same rules and regulations on all CNC milling and CNC lathe machines in North America as well? All of these parts are easily made on CNC mills and other machines as well, not just 3D printers. As Chris says, you are trying to open a Pandora’s box and if you are trying to regulate one part of an industry, you better do your research on other parts as well.

  • Jon Bunker

    So… how does this work if I design my own gun (or whatever?) in a 3D program, using knowledge only (not files) from other sources, then print it using filament (or whatever) which I never use for anything else, and dispose of filament and file?
    If I am really paranoid, I do all this offline and crash and burn everything…


  • Digits2Widgets

    These gun files when printed on any home printer will explode in your hand.

    Even printed on the precise industrial printer that Mr. Wilson used (if you can find any bureau with the missing morals to print it for you) it will explode in your hand after less than 10 rounds. Added to which it doesn’t shoot straight.

    To call these thing “guns” is a joke. They’re just lethal toys.

    Do please read this:

    and maybe even listen to the recording of the BBC World Service discussion programme where we have the privilege of speaking to Mr. Wilson.

    This whole debate would be relevant if these objects were viable firearms. Currently, they are not.

  • hrfrerich

    “Hey let’s take every word document that anyone types – ever – read it, and if it contains no-no words, lets hide some hidden microprint in the footer”

    “Great idea boss!” *sigh…*

  • Andre

    Hey all, Andre here. Thanks for the comments – I had hoped
    for/knew that 3D Printing Industry would spark off this kind of debate. A
    couple of thoughts:

    @Digits2Widgets – great point and good to hear from you!
    Yes, it’s easier to buy guns or make them in metal workshops. But that doesn’t mean
    that this tech (like others) won’t improve. It’s a potential reality we
    should/have to prepare for.

    @hrfrenrich – you are aware this is happening already with
    printers right? Watermarking objects printed on laser printers is not new

    Yes, @Jon and @Sid – this is Pandora’s box but it’s better
    we open it than keep it hidden. Two reasons: (1) There was for a time a thought
    to close/control 3D printing b/c of the gun threat (until sensible people
    talked them out of it). I would prefer a monitored world to a closed one. (2)
    We wanted to prove that there are unintended consequences that might be of
    benefit – we could (potentially) make forensics better thanks to 3D printed guns
    (and obviously, examples of unintended
    consequences in general are good: we wouldn’t want to be afraid of tech
    advances). Obviously we need to discuss whether those gains are worth the real/perceived
    loss of liberty – that’s why we posted the article here. I’d love to get more
    people involved in the discussion. Suggestions on how to do that are welcome.

  • Kevin Quigley

    These are relevant points but the issue is clouded by the gun question. A far more relevant issue is copying of original designer data and subsequent loss of earnings for the originator. Another critical area is in counterfeit engineered components. Industrial processes like SLM and SLS are used to produce parts that go onto end user products like cars and aircraft (yes, indeed they are) and in situations like this there are opportunities to copy and use a cheaper source or lower coat material rather than the OEM supplied version.

    AM machine makers must develop methods of identifying individual parts printed on individual printers. This is critical for batch traceability, counterfeit prevention and ensuring originators are paid.

    Personally I think this has to be a physical trace element so that you can pick up a part and have it tested to identify the source. There are many ways to achieve this. It is already done in other sectors. I am not convinced about the so called internal coding built into the parts. This seems too cumbersome to me, not to mention requiring new detection systems.