The Printpocalypse: A Threat to Civilisation?

In Part 1 – What 3D printing is and how it’s going to give us a Star Trek Transporter, we discussed how 3D printing can allow you to print more or less anything you want – a burger, a car and even a house. The 3D printer may appear like a mythical magic box from a kids’ fairytale. However, (and what’s a fairytale without a little adversity?), if in the wrong hands, it could wreak havoc.  We now know that 3D printers have been successful in making guns, human tissue and even drugs, and this fires up widespread ethical debate on the societal impact of 3D printing.

1. 3D printing a Gun

The first 3D printed gun has already been created and fired in the US. The shot was fired by Cody Wilson using the Liberator, a plastic handgun that he 3D printed himself, and which fires .380 caliber bullets (more than enough to kill someone). Not only is the gun undetectable (the Liberator doesn’t set off a metal detector), the controversial group which created the firearm, Defense Distributed, has made the blueprints available online , for anybody to use in their own homes. If you had a 3D printer at home today, you could download the Liberator for free.

3D printed gun: Liberator gun, 2013 by Cody Wilson / Defence Distributed

The Liberator. Image Credit:

“With the Liberator we were trying to communicate a kind of singularity, to create a moment,” says Cody Wilson, who founded Defense Distributed and hand-fired the first 3-D printed gun in May, 2013. “The broad recognition of this idea seemed to flip a switch in peoples’ minds…We knew that people would make this their own.”

Unfortunately, 3D printing can also be used to create all kinds of weapons, not just guns.

This leads to a serious ethical and legal conundrum.  If a person kills someone with a 3D printed gun or stabs someone with a 3D printed knife who is held responsible? The owner of the printer, the manufacturer of the printer, the creator of the CAD blueprint for the object or the user of the 3D printed object?

“If you help people to make terrorist bombs, you are morally and partially responsible for the damage that they do,” warns Kirk O. Hamson, a business ethicist at Santa Clara University.

In this case, not only do 3D printers help the bad guys get guns, they also make guns that can pass through airport metal detectors. If you thought America’s gun situation was bad now, just wait – you’ve seen nothing yet.

Besides 3D printing guns, it may be difficult for companies to steer clear of other 3D-printed crime. 3D printing technology has already been used by some criminal organisations to create card readers – “ATM skimmers” – that are inserted into bank machines and have enabled the theft of over $400,000.

The skimmer fits in an ATM’s card acceptance slot and steals the data on the magnetic strip of any bank card inserted. It works in conjunction with a camera that takes 2D pictures of the card and also tries to steal the victim’s PIN. We are looking at the opening up of whole new avenues of crime that were not possible a decade ago.

2. Bioprinting

In a technique known as bioprinting, it is possible to use 3D printing to produce living tissue and organs.

3D printed human tissue is created by using modified printer cartridges and extracted stem cells (taken from the patient). Once enough cells have grown in carefully monitored dishes, they’re collected to form bioink. The technique, which then uses extruder needles or inkjet-like printer heads to lay down successive rows of living cells, is advancing at breakneck speed.


As far back as 2013, Hangzhou Dianzi University in China announced it had created biomaterial 3D printer Regenovo, which printed a small working kidney that lasted four months. Even earlier, a two-year-old child in the US received a windpipe built with her own stem cells.

 Bioprinting could provide millions with cheap, accessible and quick healthcare – something vitally lacking in certain developing, war-torn regions. Bioprinting is especially advantageous for soldiers in war zones because they do not have the time to wait for donors that are miles and miles away.

Further, there is a huge global market for illegal organs which often involves kidnap and forced extraction. Over 10,000 black market organ transplants occur every year and if bioprinting can eradicate the need for this illegal sector, then it can not only save lives but also reduce violent crime.


The bionic ear in all its glory. Image credit: The Telegraph

We’ve highlighted the three key ethical issues with bioprinting:

   i. The use of stem cells

When an organ is printed, the cells must be positioned on top of each other in a very specific way to allow them to work together correctly – otherwise the effect could be disastrous. Using human stem cells greatly increases the speed of the process and the likelihood of it working, however, most human stem cells come from abortion.

Abortion is shrouded with controversy, with almost all vocal activist groups campaigning in some way. Feminists, the religious, childrens’ rights groups and many others have strong views on the subject. The use of embryonic stem cells has been an issue in bioethics ever since stem cell research began, and it continues to be an issue today.

   ii. Testing and regulation

3D printing makes it more difficult to test whether a treatment is safe and effective before it is offered as a clinical treatment.

Because 3D printing allows the creation of organs using stem cell derived cell lines, we have no idea in advance that this treatment will be safe for the patient at hand.

This is because unlike the case of developing a new drug, stem cell therapy cannot be tested on a sizeable number of healthy people prior to being tested on patients. This is because the point of using a patient’s own stem cells is to tailor the treatment quite specifically to that patient, and not to develop a treatment that can be tested on anybody else.

   iii. Enhancement

This is where science fiction meets reality. Could you 3D print working, armed tentacles and become the next Dr. Octopus? Or 3D print claws to be like Wolverine? Thinking slightly smaller for a minute, could you enhance your arms and chest for an important date? An important question is whether bioprinted tissues should be restricted only to replace diseased and injured tissue-  or for other cosmetic reasons such as fighting the negative consequences of aging, sports performance enhancement, or plastic surgery.

Performance enhancement for sports is a particularly worrying aspect. Anti doping agencies across the globe have their hands full dealing with performance enhancing drugs, but how will they cope with the (much harder to detect) bioprinted enhancements?

One solution would be to restrict enhancements for the military only, as this would be beneficial to our soldiers. The history of military technology, however suggests that 3D printing biologically for soldiers could lead to a new kind of arms race.



3. Possibility of 3D printed drugs

Since 3D printing allows the creation of complicated chemical compounds, there’s nothing to stop people from “Breaking Bad” in their own homes. A researcher at the University of Glasgow created a prototype of a 3D “Chemputer” that makes drugs and medicine. If used carefully with medical prescriptions, it is possible to revolutionise the entire pharmaceutical industry – by allowing patients to print their own medicine with a chemical blueprint they get from the pharmacy. This may sound fantastic right now, but if this works, it stands to enable DIY chemists to create anything from cocaine to LSD.


Image credit: Getty
The world’s three largest illegal trades are drugs, exotic species and arms. These three markets are, of course, based on principles of scarcity and difficulty in manufacturing. As the show Breaking Bad has taught us, drugs are neither easy to make nor sell, and arms take complicated machinery to manufacture.

All this could, however, change with 3D printing, and regulations will have to keep up. Starting this debate early will make it possible to legislate in a way that can both protect consumers and support innovation.

This article is part two of a four part series on 3D printing. Check out Part 1 here. Part 3 lists 10 challenges of 3D printing the media doesn’t talk about. Check back later for part 4.

Writing an essay or want to learn more?

Interesting articles on 3D printing

Academic papers on the subject

Websites-Want to start 3D printing yourself?

  • A web bank of resources for 3D printing.
  • Thingiverse: With nearly a half-million 3D models available to print for free, Thingiverse is the biggest online repository for 3D printable content (free).
  • YouMagine: Although it’s not as big as Thingiverse, the YouMagine community more than makes up for their smaller size with a steady stream of high-quality 3D printable content (free).



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