The story so far: Cody Wilson, who describes himself as a “crypto-anarchist,” had a bright idea last year. No government could ever oppress its people again, reasoned the 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas, if everybody in the world could manufacture their own guns at home.
Well, not literally everybody but at least everybody with $8,000 to buy a 3D printer on e-Bay, or access to one of the 3D printing shops that are springing up in major cities. So Wilson designed a gun made entirely of high-density ABS plastic that could be printed out on a standard 3D machine. He printed and tested it, and recently he made the blueprints available online.
3D printers are the Next Big Thing, and in five or 10 years they may be as common as mobile phones. A great many people are clearly looking forward to that happy day, because in the first week after Wilson uploaded the blueprints for his gun, 100,000 people downloaded them.
Wilson truly believes that governments would behave better if everybody had a gun. He even calls his plastic pistol the “Liberator”. And predictably, the US government mobilized to destroy his little enterprise.
The Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance at the State Department wrote Wilson’s company, Defense Distributed, demanding that his designs for a 3D gun be “removed from public access” until he proves he has not broken the laws governing the shipment of weapons overseas. But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle.
There have been not only 100,000 downloads from Wilson’s own site; it has also been uploaded onto Pirate Bay, and downloads from that site are going through the roof. So what does all this mean?
It doesn’t mean terrorists are more dangerous; they have never had any trouble in getting their hands on weapons a lot more lethal than a single-shot pistol. It does mean people can now make weapons that will not be detected by this generation of airport metal detectors, so it may soon take even longer to get on the plane. But that was going to happen pretty soon anyway.
What Cody Wilson has actually done is give us a useful wake-up call about the huge economic and security implications of this new technology. The 3D printers will get better and cheaper, and they will be able to produce much more impressive weapons. Forget about banning assault weapons; people will be able to make them at home.
More importantly, they will also be able to 3D-print almost any other mass-produced item whose components are less than a metre long. This has serious implications for retailers of such items — the Wal-Marts of the world — but also for entire countries whose economy depends heavily on manufacturing and exporting items of this sort. Even the cheapest labour is probably more expensive than 3D printing.
So “outsourcing” will go out of fashion but the impact of 3D printing on traditional employment patterns in the developed countries will be just as severe. Cars will continue to be built on (highly automated) assembly lines but most of the companies in the supply chain will collapse as the car manufacturers start printing the parts themselves as and when they need them.
Here comes the future again.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.