With the general media attention that 3D printing has received over the last 18 months or so a natural progression is for it to filter through to popular culture and hit our TV screens. And that is precisely what is happening — films, drama series, quiz shows and even satirical comedy have all featured the tech.
As an aside, the very first time it happened was before the ‘3D printing’ terminology was universally adopted, for the 2001 Hollywood film Jurassic Park III. In this story, a ‘Rapid Prototyper’ was used to recreate the larynx of a Velociraptor that was ultimately instrumental in saving the day!
Most recently, the US drama series Elementary, a contemporary, 21st century take on the Sherlock Holmes series, embedded 3D printing into a story line. Last night saw series 2 begin here in the UK (it first aired in the US a month or so back), and I was looking forward to it having enjoyed series 1 last year. But having been tipped off that 3D printing was to feature in an episode this year, my interest in the programme increased.
So while the actual appearance of 3D printing on our TV screens is to be expected and appreciated, my interest is in the narrative around it and how it is being presented. How much hype? How much reality? How much damage control will be necessary?
[Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen it yet, and want to, don’t read further until you have.]
In terms of the story line on last night’s Elementary, a 3D printer was, of course, used to produce an iteration of the Liberator gun. Many are bored of this topic now, and totally against giving it any more coverage. I get that, but this approach does not eliminate the valid causes for concern that the existence of the gun poses.
The narrative presented throughout the storyline here did result in mixed feelings actually. The most concerning was the implication that the US & UK governments (at some secret level) are monitoring the sale of 3D printers. But then with all the data protection (or lack thereof) issues that we live with daily, I am resigned to this being an unfortunate and unsavoury fact of life and blend this with the premise that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. Not ideal, I grant you.
What I did notice though was that there was absolutely no compulsion by the writers to explain, in depth or otherwise, what 3D printing is. None, it was taken for granted. I see that as significant progress.
So, according to the story, the gun was produced on a personal 3D printer, although there was no reference to which one, only that it had been purchased quickly and easily. The unintentional irony being that the actual prop was produced on an industrial 3D printer. Indeed, no 3D printer was ever seen during the 1 hour programme, only a screen shot of the gun and later the gun itself being fired as it successfully killed the intended victim.
At this point, I was feeling rather disappointed and disillusioned with the way things were going — not liking the message it was sending the audience in terms of their own protection for the majority and the ability to “do it themselves” for the very small minority.
The crime was concealed (it had taken place a year earlier) because the white plastic gun was dismantled and dissolved in a bottle of acetone and, resembling a bottle of milk, was successfully concealed in the fridge. While the only metal part — the nail used as the firing pin — was used to rehang a piece of art.
This was the clue that ultimately put Sherlock on the right track. And because he was on the right track, another 3D printed gun was required, this time to eliminate an accomplice. Only this time, the plastic gun exploded in the hands of the perpetrator — injuring him (not fatally) and necessitating he stab his second victim with his non-dominant hand. This ultimately gave Sherlock everything he needed — together with fragments of ABS at the crime scene — to wrap the whole thing up.
I was smiling by this point!!
I know, I’m really sad.
But really, this was a decent 3D printing message resulting from an entertaining story. Yes — it’s possible, but it’s also dangerous. Could the writers have done more? Of course, unintentional suicide was an option, but considering it is fiction, it at least had some root in reality.