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We don’t need to be afraid of 3D Printing

“if we can print ecstasy, we can print asthma meds and warm clothes for children”

My subversive 3D Terror Printer producing a lethal butterfly (also available in sheets)

This headline from Radio NZ caught my attention this morning:  Customs Minister Maurice Williamson says he is extremely worried about what 3D printers will do to border security

It goes on:

Mr Williamson says the printers are actually manufacturers of products and 3D computer files can be emailed or downloaded from the internet.

He says household printers will soon be able to produce drugs and weapons, and the country’s borders are extremely vulnerable.

“If people could print off … sheets of Ecstasy tablets at the party they’re at at that time that just completely takes away our border protection role in its known sense.”

Mr Williamson says the printers will become as common as PCs and he has asked his officials to think hard about how to keep up with this kind of technology.

The news item sparked a fair bit of mirth on social media as well as quite a bit of conversation about the state of the art of 3D Printing. I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions though. 3D Printing is a relatively new field and it’s understandable that it is not always well understood.

A quick primer if 3D Printing is a mystery to you. Wikipedia defines 3D Printing as “a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes.”

The material in most cases is plastic, but 3D Printing can also utilise metals, ceramics and even chocolate. Typically, a user will create or download a digital file of the object they want to print. So Mr Williamson’s first sentence is correct. 3D Printers make stuff, and the files to do so can be shared.

His argument departs from reality from this point on. 3D Printing is a wonderful, exciting technology that could pave the way to new products, smarter use of resources, and the end of scarcity if it’s ultimate promise is realised. But for now, and the immediate future, there are plenty of things it is not capable of.

3D printed drugs and weapons are a long way off.

UK researcher Lee Cronin is arguably at the top of the field of on-demand drug creation, but even he admits the idea of a true drug printer “is still essentially at the “science fiction” stage of this process”. Even if such printers did exist, you’d still have to source the precursor ingredients, no matter if you’re making panadol or methamphetamine.

If by weapons, the Minister means firearms, then yes, a few people have 3D printed a few firearm parts. Not the important, subjected-to-great-force parts mind you, just the easy ones. A lower receiver – technically the legal definition of a firearm in the US – is just a box that holds a few moving parts. Likewise, a 3D printed magazine is just another box, with a spring. When someone can 3D print a chamber or barrel that doesn’t kill or maim its first user, I’ll be more concerned. Those tend to be made from machined steel of great strength, not a squiggle of plastic extruded from the high-tech equivalent of a glue gun.

The tools to make firearm parts are already available, relatively cheaply, and don’t require a high degree of specialised skill to operate. Think high school metal work class. Should we consider shutting those down too?

So as to “household printers will soon be able to produce drugs and weapons”, the Minister’s moral panic is misplaced, or at the very least, highly premature.

Perhaps saddest of all, when the Minister thinks we have the technology at hand to produce almost any object imaginable, his first response is to look for ways to regulate it  – rather than rejoice that we had reached the end of scarcity (because if we can print ecstasy, we can print asthma meds and warm clothes for children).

Incidentally, when my 3D Printer arrived in NZ as a kit, I paid GST, customs duty and a biosecurity levy (presumably due to some of the parts being made of plywood). Most of the things I print are objects that don’t currently exist for sale, so no import duties are being avoided. If Mr Williamson is concerned about avoided duty, he shouldn’t be.


  1. Daniel said,

    August 2, 2013 @ 11:06 am

    I really don’t see how duties will be avoided as:

    1 – Who will be supplying 3D high quality footprints for free so people can have their own “production line” in their garage.
    2 – Even if you had your “production line” in your garage (as some individuals do). You would normally have a company so you can lawfully sell your product, which by the way, you manufactured.
    3 – Yes the quality of the plastic and even the final product means you will not be building the next Iphone

    Hopefully this is the first and last time this issue is raised. I have seen a few small and even medium sized companies using 3D printers and speeding up days or even weeks in their R&D as the “create-submit design-print-ship-test” was reduced to create-print-test.

    A great time and cost reduction for the usual small R&D budget of a small NZ player. It is a true adoption of lean R&D (Or part of it anyway).

    Great post – Thanks

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