Plastic Fantastic Re-recycled and the Hazards of a New Age in Technology

Metal powder, and resulting metal parts made from metal additive manufacturing process.  Photo -
Metal powder, and resulting metal parts made from metal additive manufacturing process.
Photo –

by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

Since the last story on additive manufacturing and plastic guns, there have been a few developments. On June 12 in New York City, Council Member Lewis Fidler (D-Brooklyn) submitted a bill to amend the New York administrative code to make it illegal to use a 3D printer to create any part of a firearm unless the person is a licensed gunsmith and requiring gunsmiths to notify the NYPD and register said firearm within 72 hours. There is additional language in the bill applying to systems to feed bullets, serial number requirements, and regulations against destroying weapons. Also on June 12, a second piece of legislation was also announced by State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), which would make it a felony for anyone to manufacture, sell, or use guns or ammunition magazines made with a 3D printer. Naturally this did not sit well with Defense Distributed’s Cody Wilson whose response to Fidler’s bill in an email interview was “[s]uch legislation is a deprivation of equal protection and works in clear ignorance of Title I and II of U.S. gun laws.”  At federal law, it is legal for individuals to manufacture certain types of firearms as long as the guns are not resold, are not fully automatic, and comply with set limits such as barrel length.  In addition, in order for a homemade gun to be legal under Federal law, the person who builds their own gun must make at least 20 percent of the receiver (the operative part of the gun containing the trigger mechanism, etc.).  The purpose of this is to prevent people from buying the gun parts separately and then putting them together but it allows for prototyping.  A recent story out of Santa Monica, California illustrates a problem not only with the 20 percent requirement but laws restricting guns in general. John Zawahri, 23, went on a rampage using a modified AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle during an attack that started at his father’s home and ended at Santa Monica College where police fatally wounded him. He killed five people before he was stopped. Relevant to the laws at hand though, anonymous sources in the Santa Monica Police Department have indicated that Zawahari probably assembled the modified AR-15 himself from purchased components.  This shows the inherent problem with this kind of gun regulation (as well as illustrating that guns are a simple technology). Criminals don’t care about laws. They are lawbreakers by definition. Rules of society mean nothing to them. If they are willing to commit crimes involving victims, as the saying goes, in for a penny, in for a pound.  Consider the following in light of what is going on in the New York City Council and the events in Santa Monica.

Making plastic guns is the tip of the iceberg that is additive manufacturing. You can print with far more than plastics. Think of the possibilities of printing biological materials. This isn’t a question for science fiction. Bioprinting is right around the corner.

Printing with biological materials is nothing new, but like much of the additive manufacturing technology, it is rapidly evolving.  What can be printed today is a small sample of what will be printable tomorrow.  Today, food stuff can be printed although it is basically limited in components by what is extrudable through a syringe – chocolate, dough, cheese, batter, etc. – although experiments mixing foods with hydrocolloids – substances that form gels with water, generally used to thicken food products – are underway to create a range of basic liquid ingredients. NASA is currently funding printable foods research as both a solution to hunger here on Earth and as a method for feeding future astronauts.  Modern Meadow is a company developing 3D bioprint technology to produce meat and leather products in a more water and carbon efficient manner than traditional means.  Google currently serves their employees pasta that is printed. While it may be some time before you can print an apple pie or a steak, it is on the technological horizon. But researchers at Cornell University have managed to fabricate a bioengineered human ear using additive manufacturing technology that looks and acts like its natural counterpart. Like many technological horizons, we may be moving toward bioprinting faster than we realize.

What is even more interesting is the notion of using additive manufacturing to create chemical compounds, a process researchers are calling chemputing, to use chemical inks to assemble a chemistry set similar to those found in professional labs. One of the leaders in this field of research is University of Glasgow chemist Leroy (Lee) Cronin.  He’s not printing objects. He’s printing molecules. During a recent TED talk, Cronin discussed the potential boons of chemputing:

Being able to print new drugs quickly (handy in the case of a pan- or epidemic), being able to print drugs directly where they’re needed and avoiding transportation issues, using 3-D printing to create personalized drugs tailored to your own DNA, these are all fantastic benefits to society. Without doubt, this is a technology with world changing potential.

However, as noted in previous installments of this series and by Virginia Tech researcher Thomas A. Campbell, additive manufacturing technology “can be used as a double-edged sword. The same thing occurred with the Internet; the same thing occurred with cell phones.” Campbell should know. Part of his job is to think about the fast-evolving nature of 3-D printing, particularly in the field of counterfeitingbut let’s stay with Cronin’s idea of  a universal digital chemistry set for a bit. When you can print custom designed molecules, what is to prevent a criminally minded individual from printing methamphetamine or cocaine? Or worse, anthrax, ricin or sarin? A custom designed shifting antigen flu like Stephen King’s fictitious Captain Trips? The potential downside from additive manufacturing technology could literally be the stuff of horror novels.

But does that mean we should not pursue the technology to its maximum benefit because the risks of misuse could be truly catastrophic?  I don’t think so. The benefits could be as or more substantively beneficial to society than the risks, especially since there are ways to mitigate risks. One of those ways is regulation like the above mentioned bills and calls for new laws by lawmakers such as U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), and California state Sen. Leland Yee (D-8th District). However, these efforts are narrowly focused on the issue of plastic guns. The potential problems additive manufacturing presents are far broader. This is largely a political issue. Politicians are loathe to address any issue that either they or the public don’t see as a pressing problem of a present nature. As Dan Lieberman, Yee’s press secretary, said, “We’re not particularly interested in regulating printers; we’re interesting in regulating the firearms that they make.” However, International Business Times reports that “there are some rumblings in Washington of the possibility of registering 3-D printers and restricting the dissemination of blueprints” and reports that 3-D printing industry consultant Terry Wohlers “has said there are discussions going on right now at the U.S. Commerce and Defense departments with the registration of 3-D printers on the table.” Is this a wise approach to the new technology?  Maybe not. Wohlers also said, “It’s definitely a knee-jerk reaction in Washington to regulate 3-D printers. It’s only going to cut our own throats.” It certainly smacks of overreaching and overreacting with the potential to stifle innovation, especially when you consider China.  America dominates additive manufacturing technology at the moment, but China’s Beijing Longyuan Automated Fabrication System (known as AFS) is a rapidly upcoming competitor. In addition, Singapore just announced in February that they are investing $500 million over the next five years in support of advanced manufacturing techniques including 3-D printing. Concentrating regulation on the machine side could harm our economy in the long run. Campbell further cautions, “We’ve already lost our edge in wireless technology and flat-panel displays. We may be compromised on national security as a consequence if we’re not leaders anymore.” This informs the observation that regulation of the machine side of additive manufacture should be handled carefully so as to not negatively impact trade, innovation and national security but with more responsiveness and forethought than Washington traditionally brings to bear when the law is attempting to adapt to new technologies. This will not just require that industry gets to make their own rules as is so often the case in our PAC driven legislature, but that the Congress take more responsibility for their own technological education so as to make better and more informed decisions regarding a technology that can transform the world in ways beautiful and terrible.

While Lady Justia is blind, that blindness is meant to symbolize impartiality, not ignoring either what science tells us about the world or the capabilities discoveries allow to be engineered to reality. Perhaps the regulatory response to methamphetamines can provide a guide to how government and industry can cooperate to mitigate risks. The once more prolific trend of using over the counter decongestants to synthesize methamphetamine led to Congress passing a law in 2005 putting identification checks, purchase limits and other restrictions in place for such OTC drugs that could be used in the illicit drug’s manufacture.  While this hasn’t eliminated that risk, it has mitigated it.  With proper incentive and in their own best interests, industry can also work to create solutions that limit the ability to misuse additive manufacturing technology that don’t stifle the potential utility of it.  The example provided in the case of methamphetamines  is seen in developments by Acura Pharmaceuticals.  Last year, they released a new formulation of nasal decongestant called Nexafed designed specifically to thwart attempts to turn it into methamphetamine.  The active ingredients of Nexafed turn to a useless gel when mixed with the ingredients commonly used to cook the drug. As 3-D printing becomes commonplace, the government and manufacturers each play a role in oversight and risk mitigation. But both parties need to mitigate risk in smart ways that may not always be the most instantly profitable, but instead focus on the common good.  No one can buy printed furniture or foods or houses or medicines or whatnot if they are all dead from printed Captain Trips.

As a species and as a society, can we afford the risks of being blind sided by science? Not to be confused with . . .

Can a society or humanity as a whole survive in the long term once its technological capabilities begin to outstrip our legal systems ability to recognize and limit their risks?

Can humanity reach its full potential without assuming some degree of risk in developing and adopting new technologies?

I don’t think we can survive if our capabilities too rapidly or too greatly outpace our systems of risk mitigation and restraint from both the regulatory and industrial channels, but by the same token, nothing great was ever achieved without some degree of risk and no amount of planning can eliminate the law of unintended consequences.

What do you think?

Source(s): International Business Times, PopSci, The L.A. Times, Epoch Times, YouTube, BBC News, TED, 3D Printing (1, 2), WebPro News

NOTE: I strongly suggest investigating the 3D Printing site if you find this technology interesting. They have a wealth of information across the entire spectrum of what is possible with additive manufacturing.

~submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

37 thoughts on “Plastic Fantastic Re-recycled and the Hazards of a New Age in Technology”

  1. Unlike the other story where the green cat was in the sack, er, bag. 😀

  2. Gene,
    I just looked at your original story from May 12. The video you featured has been taken down. The people who made the 3D gun shown were issued a “takedown” letter from the State Department telling them to “remove the information from the Internet.” That one letter shows just how little the bureaucrats understand about the Internet. Again, the State Department does not understand the Striesand Effect. The Internet news web site Truthloader, has a story about it:

  3. I say, close down the legislatures. We have way too many laws that serve no more purpose but to set up the populace for tyranny. How about coming up with a system where lawmakers, judges, presidents must take full and complete, even financial responsibility for the disasters, financial, and otherwise, which they create constantly without one iota of concern as to the ramifications of their decisions/actions. The obscene corruption might come to a screeching halt if bureaucrats had to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for their actions. Done maybe with real jail time in a real jail, or real financial reimbursement on some level, that might wipe them out, or standing naked day and night for a month in the city square, rain, shine, or snow? What would happen then?

  4. Gene,
    This story made me do some additional homework on this story. I see that lawmakers have proposed placing an embargo on the plans for 3D printed weapons; that is, the software.

    I see two problems. The most obvious being the First Amendment.

    The second problem is even more unsolvable than trying to get around the First Amendment. To ban or restrict the software they would have to ban or restrict CAD-CAM technology. And even if they did that, there are still people like me who know how to use a T-square, set of triangles and French curves, and actually draw the thing. Then scan the drawing into a digital file.

    One more thing. If anyone has watched more than a couple of episodes of Orange County Choppers, they have seen computer guided cutting tools in action. Highly intricate parts can be machined precisely using such advanced technology as…..wait for it….high pressure water jets!

    As I said earlier, lawmakers want to regulate ‘things’ rather than solve the underlying problems in our society and economy. Give it a fancy name so other lawmakers are afraid to vote against it. Congress’ notion of solving problems is much like putting a band aid on a broken leg.

  5. Bob K.,

    “Could we not simply eliminate criminal behavior by eliminating laws?”

    Yes, in the instance of malum prohibitum crimes like drug laws because those are statutory crimes. In the instance of malum in se crimes like murder, absolutely not as they are intrinsically evil acts under most every ethos. Not all crime is created equal.


    Thanks and not only can Congress do that, they’ll probably be calling it the “I Don’t Know Nuthin’ ‘Bout Stranglin’ No Babies Act” or the “Protection of Analog Chemistry Act” or something equally ridiculously hypocritical. You know. Like the Patriot Act. :mrgreen:

  6. The last telegram will be sent July 14th, in India.

    From article: “However, International Business Times reports that “there are some rumblings in Washington of the possibility of registering 3-D printers and restricting the dissemination of blueprints” and reports that 3-D printing industry consultant Terry Wohlers “has said there are discussions going on right now at the U.S. Commerce and Defense departments with the registration of 3-D printers on the table.” Is this a wise approach to the new technology?”

    A resounding F**K NO!

    America’s politicians have given away the potential leadership (and attendant economic benefit) attending alternative energy, brought stem cell research to a near halt and kept it gasping for air for 15 years and abandoned space and groundbreaking physics research opportunities to others. They do not make good choices and they should not enabled with the anticipation of a new technology’s misuse and the fear thereof.

    I’m for a lack of regulation on this front unless and until it is absolutely necessary. One can foresee designer bio-weapons being cranked out in a basement lab possibly, possibly, but more concretely the potential for unimaginable medical and scientific benefit. I’d rather not have the medical/scientific benefit exploration stifled because we’re afraid of a mad person doing something evil. I’d also rather not every basement maker cranking out action figures and gewgaws for Etsy or Shapeways have to register their printers. But I can see why Congress would want to do that and who it benefits.

    When the bad stuff happens let’s deal with it, until then let’s let creative, decent people do creative, decent things with it.

    Bah, humbug.

    LOL, excellent article Gene: I just know if it’s possible to strangle this baby in its crib Congress will do it, I know they will.

  7. Otteray Scribe,
    You say , state of the economy, joblessness, home foreclosure and lack of medical care may contribute to rates of depression and be causally related to suicide and violence. Thats a novel idea. Bet it never occurred to our congressional leadership. If it did occur to them, there is no evidence that they intend to do anything about it. Our congress seems quite content to facillitate the continued divergence of wealth distribution. More for the oligarchs, less for everybody else.
    After all. it’s not as if there is no relationship between frequency of criminality and wealth distribution disparity, or is there.

  8. Gene H.,

    Ask yourself this question:
    Could we not simply eliminate criminal behavior by eliminating laws?
    Laws, after all, create criminals out of non-lawbreakers.

    C’mon, I’m trying to work with you here! Trying to establish my Libertarian credentials!
    I support one of your arguments, and you argue with me!

    Clearly a case of the argumentum ad hominem non-illigitimi carborundum, as Cato the Elder never said.

  9. OS,

    I view enforceability as a distinct issue from “why are there laws”. That’s a matter of good versus bad formulation and in part rests on the distinction between malum in se and malum prohibitum. As you point to, the reason the 18th Amendment failed so miserably (and drug prohibitions in general fail so miserably) is that they are malum prohibitum and they are contrary to basic human nature. Taking drugs proper is a victimless crime. Mankind has been ingesting mind-altering substance since Oog found out those mushrooms over there made him feel special and see things no one else could. To me that whole issue of enforceability revolves around the question “what makes a good law, what makes a bad law” rather than “why do we have laws”.

  10. Ah, yes, those nice things we turned out in wood and metal shop back in the 40s and 50s, education was so well rounded then.

  11. Bob K.,

    Ask yourself the following questions:

    What is a crime?
    Who do criminal laws protect and/or provide remedy for?

    And technically what you said was an assertion (“Criminals don’t follow laws.”) that is true by definition (i.e. a person who has committed a crime is a criminal and a crime is an action or omission which constitutes an offense and is punishable by law) couple with a question (“Why force laws on law-abiding citizens?”).

    Answering the above questions correctly will provide the answer to your question.

    If you are having issues with “coitus interruptus” anything, I suggest locking the door and/or seeking medical attention as the situation might require.

  12. Bob K.,
    This is an ongoing problem and conundrum for lawmakers. Some laws are unenforceable, literally. The late unlamented 18th Amendment is a perfect example. It did nothing to curb alcohol sales, reduce alcoholism or improve physical and mental health of the populace. Instead, it gave rise to the Mafia, smuggling, organized crime, and helped J. Edgar Hoover rise to power. It also created a general disrespect for the law by the average citizen who simply wanted a beer after work.

    How soon they forget. Lawmakers rush to pass laws on issues and technologies they don’t understand, when those technologies are things a huge percentage of the population wants. I saw a Congresswoman say in an interview (paraphrasing) that she did not understand what a gun magazine was, but she was against it and would vote to eliminate them.

    I believe it was Dianne Feinstein who said she wanted to make any equipment capable of making guns illegal or tightly controlled. As I said then, only half jokingly, she can have my 16-speed machinist’s drill press when she pries it from my cold dead hands.

    My argument is that any and all laws should be enforceable. For example, how is that war on drugs going? Considering the amount of money and national treasure going into the “war on drugs,” illegal drug use should have been completely eliminated by now. Got news for the drug warriors: It is easier to buy drugs in prison than on the street.

    As for firearms, instead of spending so much time on the instrument the killer uses, how about mental health intervention to treat the killer’s motivations and illness. But, but, but……that is too much WORK, and it might cost MONEY!

    Big insurance is making it tougher and tougher for people to get mental health care. I wrote about this recently. I get mental health newsletters, and the economic state of mental health providers is dismal. There are few providers in private practice compared to twenty five years ago.

    Just remember, a lot of the gun deaths reported are suicides. How about treating the problem of major depression as the epidemic it is? One of the key elements in suicide is a feeling of hopelessness, that there is no hope. Given the state of our economy, joblessness, home foreclosures, no access to health care, and all the other ills of our society the thing that surprises me is the suicide rate is as low as it is.

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