Understanding the technology behind 3D printed plastic guns

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) — 3D printing technology, and the ability to print plastic guns, has gained attention after a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on the release of blueprints explaining how to print guns on Tuesday.

An engineering lab at the University of Madison has two 3D printers that can create items out of metal, not plastic. Engineering professor Dan Thoma, who is also the Director of the Grainger Institute for Engineering, has worked in the field and with 3D printing technology for around 25 years. He said there’s a lot more that goes into creating 3D printed items than simply hitting a button.

“Anything that’s created in an engineering environment can be used for good and bad,” he said.

In order to operate a 3D printer in the Grainger lab, users must know how to create a digital 3D model of the item they are attempting to print, convert that model into a file that examines and analyzes the item layer by layer, and then instruct the printer to recreate the item from the ground up.

“You take each slice and follow that slice with the computer controls, and that’s how you take a solid model and break it down and then build it back up again,” Thoma said.

Thoma also said there are only about ten or 12 students with access to the lab for their studies.The machines in the UW lab cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million, and even with this technology, results are not guaranteed. Thoma said that items often take multiple attempts to successfully create without defects, and that it is important to test any products that are printed.

“In essence, you just can’t fabricate and put it into use,” he said. “If you do, expect a failure that could cause harm to someone.”

Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney is worried that those with access to 3D printing technology and the intent to do harm is a dangerous combination.

“Why do we provide and create an environment and a mechanism by which to create a 3D gun that doesn’t have a tracking mechanism, doesn’t have a serial number, if used in a crime cannot be traced back to its original owner?” Mahoney said.

According to Mahoney, because 3D guns aren’t considered regulated firearms, those carrying the 3D printed weapons wouldn’t be charged the same way as they would be with a regulated gun.

“There’s the potential that they could be charged with possession of a facsimile firearm in the commission of a crime but technically carrying it would not fall into the same regulations,” Mahoney said.

The printers in the Grainger lab in the University of Wisconsin print metal, not plastic.

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