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Guns, Skulls, and Faces: What Is Next for 3-D Printing?

To say that 3-D printing is a hot field would clearly be an understatement. In recent memory, stories have surfaced about the use of the technology to create everything from functioning gun parts, partial prosthetic faces, to an FDA-approved cranial device that was used to replace 75% of one patient's skull. Recently, Oxford University researchers have made strides in using 3-D printing to create synthetic human tissue that could ultimately be used for drug-delivery applications as well as for tissue replacement.

Measuring 285 nanometers in length, a 3-D printed racecar model was created in roughly four minutes.

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3-D technology has existed for decades but is only now beginning to gain steam. The technology convinced Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, to resign from a coveted publishing post to become a 3-D printing entrepreneur--a technology he predicts will be "bigger than the Internet."

That is certainly a bold proclamation--one that may be hard to quantify and live up to in the near term. But the technology is already shaking things up. Consider how the technology has enabled a 25-year-old law student named Cody Wilson to disrupt the U.S. gun-control debate. Wilson has already demonstrated the feasibility of printing working parts (a functional 3-D printed rifle is in the works) and a searchable online database to distribute the relevant associated files for guns and any other product deemed worthy of uploading by a user.

In a video clip, Wilson asks, hypothetically: "Can 3-D printing be subversive?" He continues: "If it can, it will be because it allows us to make the important things. Not trinkets, not lawn gnomes, but the things that institutions and industries have an interest in keeping from us. Things like [...] medical devices, drugs, goods, guns."

Wilson controversially questions regulation--"in all of its forms." "If 3-D is going to be developed as a technology, we need specific tools to help get around industry, government, and the collusive members of the Maker community," he says in a video attempting to promote DEFCAD, an open-source search engine for 3-D printing.

Consider the anarchy that could be unleashed as 3-D printing could be one day used to self-manufacture everything from firearms to medicines to prosthetic limbs to devices drugs embedded inside of them.

Obviously, the feasibility of self-manufacturing medical devices will likely remain far-fetched for some time. And if it ever were possible, serious questions would remain. For one, who would be to blame when a 3-D printed medical device malfunctions? The maker of the 3-D printer? The creator of the associated CAD file? The user who printed the device?

More certain is that 3-D printing is poised to make good on its promise to be the next big thing. And even it if is overhyped, it will likely have a significant impact on manufacturing, which, incidentally, 3-D printing is helping make seem cool again in the eyes of the public. If the technology makes good on half of its promises, it's worth some serious consideration.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz

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