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. It’s about time we eliminate all laws which make murder, robbery, rape, and possession of nukes criminal offenses.

    Criminals don’t follow laws. Why force laws on law-abiding citizens?

    Feel free to dismiss this assertion as a “coitus interruptus straw woman fallacy,” if you can’t present an actual argument against it.

  2. Part of the problem is we have blind lawmakers trying to legislate how many colors we can see. See this all the time in healthcare.

  3. Ooo. That’s some proof! Aristotle is reeling in awe!

    Now, how about addressing the fact that you aren’t even addressing what was actually said but rather what you materially misrepresented as being said.

    Which of course means you are “calling me out” on something you said, not me, and are therefor calling yourself out.

    Do you call yourself out often or do you save such social and rhetorical awkwardness for special occasions?

  4. Anyone ever hear of zip guns. They were homemade guns used by gang members particularly during the 50’s. Law makers at that time didn’t try to make laws on barrel lengths or trigger component requirements.

  5. The capabilities of people’s minds is amazing….putting into action…. Is getting as easy as the mind can think…..

  6. For Dog’s sake, please stop saying something is moronic because you don’t agree and try proving it is wrong instead by using logic and evidence.

    Also, don’t mistake a predicate condition for analysis with an argument proper. The main argument of this article was about how should risk mitigation, including regulation, be used to address emergent powerful technologies.

    Also, don’t use straw men. The statement made was “Criminals don’t care about laws.” – a statement addressing their state of mind. It was not “criminals don’t follow laws” which is simply self-evident in the definition of the term “criminal”.

    Your cooperation on these matters is greatly appreciated.

  7. For God’s sake, please stop using the moronic “criminals don’t follow laws” argument. Is beyond stupid, and it completely undermines whatever ther intelligent thing you might have to say.

  8. The cornucopian magical thinkers must be getting ready to do a 3D printing of oil so that we won’t reach peak oil … next will come cornucopian magical thinking about printing a clean atmosphere.

  9. Folks:

    If you really want to listen to some geeksalicious tesla coil tunes, instead of those amateur square or sawtooth waveform generating spark plugs, check this out. Hear lightning bolt generated music the way the gods of the RF Generator meant it to be heard.

  10. It’s not the object that matters. it is the use of the object that does. I remember all this hubub about plastic guns when the Glock 17 came out. Politican types were having a field day. Well unless you had your head buried in the sand it is pretty hard to get a Glock 17 through an x-ray machine when the entire upper is made of steel. Plus, why would some dirtbag go through the trouble to buy a 3D printer and print up a gun when he can get a real one from Guido down by the river for $50.00. Has anyone forgot about the Saturday Night Specials floating around the world?

    And what is up with making it a felony to print up a gun. Whatever happened to the metal lathe and forge? Has anyone noticed that whenever politicans fear something they always want to make it a felony? knee jerks at their best.

  11. Justice Holmes,

    Indeed, it is a failing we have as a species that when it comes to technology we usually focus on “can we do it” instead of “should we do it”. That was a large part of the impetus for writing this column. We need a lot more “should we” on the whole.

  12. Everything new has so many boons! More guns faster, printed food made of what? It is just one long jolly ride. The problem is not that there is too much talk of risk. The problem is that there rarely is any consideration of risk or who will ultimately suffer that risk. Whether its the brand spanking NEW financial derivative that is so creative, so out of the box or its a new weapon that can kill more faster or a genetically modified food that causes humans to become ill, anyone who raises a question is a Luddite, a coward or obstructionist. And when the worst happens, the defense is always “no one could have predicted that!”

    Science is science and I’m all for it but running head long into the “brave new world” with ones eyes closed or being willfully blind just seems reckless to me.

  13. While George Washington and the men were at Valley Forge, this Fidler guy from NY would have been drinking tea with Lord Cornwallis in Philly. Oh, you have to be a gunsmith to make a gun. And a journalist to post a blog comment. And a doctor to talk about aspirin. And a carpenter to drive a nail in America’s coffin.

  14. voltaic,
    Automatic and semiautomatic weaponry are so yesterday. That Tesla guy was one smart dude. I want to see how the regulators manage to legislate ownership of Tesla coils that can be energized sequentially at high rates of speed. As I said in my comment above, they are still thinking of the Internet as pneumatic tube technology like the bank uses at the outer lane at the drive-up service window. On the other hand, anyone with the most basic understanding of Tesla principles and simple machine tools can make something like that demonstrated by the amateur hobbyist in the video below.

    This next effort requires a bit more skill, knowledge and money:

  15. OS,

    I was a bit young to have read “Future Shock” when it was first published, but I did read it in 1977 (about the same time I was devouring anything written by Carl Sagan). Quite the eye-opener. I haven’t read it in years, but I imagine Toffler’s observations hold true.

    As for Metal Storm, yeah, I’ve seen footage of that thing in action before. The capacity for destruction for a projectile weapon that isn’t heavy artillery is staggering.

  16. When I was eight my brother introduced me to science fiction. Sixty years later I live in a world where many a far out idea in the 50’s has become real during my lifetime. While the current focus is on printed weapons there are far more dangerous possibilities as Gene pointed out. Personally I don’t think humanity is emotionally ready to handle it well, but the genie is out of the bottle and we’re ready for a bumpy ride ahead.

  17. The American mindset is to ignore 30,000 deaths each year from firearms but to put the country’s entire focus, determination, blood and treasure behind stopping a few crazy ‘terrorists’ who cause random acts of violence and that includes 9/11. Since 3000 lives were lost on 9/11. nearly 400,000 have lost their lives due to guns. Or the 100,000 preventable hospital deaths each year, which are ignored more than the ramblings of Sarah Palin. The obvious disconnect is shocking.

    With 3D printers, killing will simply be a game. After all, we can simply shoot ’em up and print ’em out.

    3D printing will hopefully cause more good than harm, but when little Johnny gets mad at the teacher, he can simply go home and print him a Colt 45 to greet teacher in the morning. Ah, yes, the price of technology advancing faster than the human brain can process. Should be fun to watch….

  18. Gene,
    I first became aware of Alvin Toffler back in 1970 when he published Future Shock.. He posited that change was exponential, and there was no way the psychology of society could comprehend, much less keep up with technological change. He used several simple analogies, such as our ability to go fast. For millions of years, we could go no faster than we could run.Then horses came along and speeds of twenty miles an hour were possible for short distances. Then came rail, and speeds crept up. It took a decade or more after the Wright brothers first flew, for airplanes to go faster than 45 miles per hour. That changed quickly, and within a hundred years we achieved speeds of escape velocity from earth’s gravitational pull. Toffler pointed out the curve is exponential to a degree that is almost inconceivable, once the dots are connected.

    Moore’s Law supposes computers will double in speed every two years for as far as can be extrapolated into the future. Laws keeping up with that kind of growth is laughable. We are treated to the spectacle of a senior Senator making a speech on the floor of the Senate that the Internet is a series of tubes. Senator Ted Stevens was not a stupid man. He was a highly skilled pilot in WWII, awarded numerous medals and awards for his skill, resourcefulness and bravery. It is just that time had passed him by.

    People like Michael Bloomberg want to pass laws on technologies regarding gun manufacture, when gun designs are going in different directions. Everyone is thinking plastic, whereas 3D printer designers are already using exotic metals and other materials. There has been a great deal of press about how the plastic parts some of the printed gun receivers are unreliable. I have news for them. If a 3D printer can print items like the one shown at the link below, a firearm receiver is going go be no big deal.

    Besides, while people are worrying about semiautomatic weapons, guns like the one in this video are legal under our present laws. It has no moving parts other than the bullet.

    Back when I was in high school, a friend of mine and I came up with an idea for a magnetic rail gun. I was a skilled draftsman even in high school, and made a set of working drawings. Anyway, we never got around to building one, but could have. We were just kids and did not think of going after a patent. Talk about missing the boat on that one. The Navy has now built one. BTW, my friend is now an internationally known theoretical physicist. For anyone curious about that bright idea, Google, “Magnetic Rail Gun.”

    Bloomberg and his cronies are whistling past the graveyard with their attempts to regulate the unregulatable.

  19. “Drunk driver charged in wreck that killed 1, injured 3
    | June 16, 2013

    DUI laws didn’t and can’t stop people like the driver in this article. BUT he can and should be held responsible for the death and injuries he caused.

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