The Department of Justice isn’t new to worrying about 3D printed weapons. Last year they tested a 3D printed gun and the results were a little scary. So the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC) has posted a solicitation announcing their intention to purchase a Stratasys Objet24 with the intention of using it to study the role that 3D printing may play in the manufacture of weapons and explosive devices in the future.
“The bureau has a requirement for a Stratasys Objet24 Desktop Personal 3D printer to support the advanced technical exploitation of evolving and existing high technology explosive devices.”
TEDAC is an inter-agency organisation that was formed in 2003 for the sole purpose of studying IED’s and other explosive devices made by terrorist organisations and insurgent groups operating in opposition to the United States and their allies. Their desire to purchase a high end 3D printer is a pretty clear signal that the United States government is worried about what terrorist organisations might be able to do with this new technology.
If you’re not familiar with the Objet24, the $20,000 3D printer is capable of delivering some of the most detailed printed objects on the market. It has a printing resolution of 28-microns and a respectable build platform of 9.45 by 7.87 by 5.9 inches. The printer processes liquid resin solidified with a UV lamp, creating a higher detailed print with less stratification. The FBI was very specific about the brand and model as the Objet24 is currently the only 3D printer that complies with their internal data recovery and thermal environmental requirements and has a print resolution high enough for their testing standards.
TEDAC did not give any specific indication of how the 3D printer would be used to study explosive devices. However an obvious application would be using rapid prototyping techniques to recreate exploded bombs. With new 3D scanning technology and some of the shockingly user-friendly yet robust 3D modelling programs available, a recreation of a spent device is a very real possibility with today’s current technology. As an aside I’m actually a little shocked that there hasn’t been a greater push to get law enforcement forensic departments access to 3D scanners and 3D printers. They’re already being used by Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, and I was shocked at how realistically 3D scanning and 3D printing were both used and discussed on a sci fi television show. If television writers can see how useful the technology can be in solving crimes then certainly actual forensic scientists should be able to find a use for it.
The issue of 3D printed weapons is a contentious and controversial one eliciting passionate opinions on both sides. But regardless of where you stand on the limits of the United States’ Second Amendment, our government will still have to get into the 3D printed weapons business in order to prevent them from being used against them. The idea of being able to 3D print anything that we want is an exciting and alluring future, but reality is going to make that a significantly more complicated and messier future than most of us have envisioned. We may be able to 3D print Yoda heads and Eiffel Towers until we’re blue in the face, but someone else is going to use the same technology to build a plastic pipe bomb or a concealable gun.
Technology has no morality. The idealistic among us may want it to only be used to make puppies and unicorns, but historically puppies and unicorns are rarely the end result of technological advancement. So while my first instinct is always to be upset when the government gets its hands on things like 3D printing and uses it to make stuff blow up better, I’m not going to pretend that the idea of more radical groups without layers and layers of bureaucratic red tape holding them back using 3D printing to make stuff blow up better is not even more upsetting.