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By Steve Sacco

I have a friend. Not just any friend, but an “internet friend.” We met on a stock market message board about 15 years ago, and he (I presume he’s not lying, and is, in fact, male) and I have discussed stocks, technology, and all kinds of topics ever since. I’ve enjoyed our chats immensely, and one of the things I’ve learned is that, unlike my friend, I’m terrible at trading stocks. I’ve also learned that I’m pretty good at nosing out technology trends – as is he. For many years now, the subject of 3-D printing technology has come up in our conversations . . .

Long ago, we both agreed that it would be amazing and, if you’ll pardon the expression, game-changing. Sadly, I never took action on that, and actually bought any 3-D company stocks, but that’s another story.

Don’t worry, this turns “gun” right about now.

The recent hysteria regarding the printing of guns has gained national attention, and has been featured here at TTAG several times. As far as that technology goes, it’s cool, but, seriously, consider this: Who is going to want to have a printer that makes 3-D items? Once you’ve made a few toys, or cute little doohickies, what then? You know that material costs will be astoundingly high. You’ll burn though them at great speed. And you’ll always be running to the store/ordering online more cartridges for whatever material you’ve just run out of, or are missing. Printer technology will race ahead, and your 18-month old 3-D printer will be considered obsolete.

Consider the parallel to paper printing. Yes, you can print a full-color photograph, but you can’t do it as well or as cheaply as the local Costco. The efficiencies of scale which allow current methods of production to turn out products as cheaply as they do won’t change.

More important than making the same old stuff a different way, what’s changing is the ability to manufacture parts in new, heretofore impossible ways.

An article in the March, 2014 issue National Defense Magazine, “3D Printing Promises to Revolutionize Defense, Aerospace Industries” really drives this point home. The author, Yasmin Tadjdeh, interviews power players in this space, and they discuss how “additive manufacturing” is allowing the manufacturing of light weight jet engine parts, pieces for fighter jets, and satellites.

I expect that additive manufacturing will transform firearms design and construction. Imagine, years in the future, after 3-D manufacturing has become mainstream, coming across an “ancient” AR-15 milled lower. “What?” you’ll say. “Look at how much wasted material! It’s made from a block of solid aluminum. It weighs a ton!”

The possibilities are endless: stress simulation can predict exactly where the stresses are. And now, with 3-D manufacturing, parts will be built with material exactly where the stress is, and none where it’s not. What about parts which need temperature isolation? Parts could be built with enclosed areas of air (who knows, maybe nitrogen or something, if the part was built in that environment) which could serve as insulation.

What areas of firearms manufacturing do you think could benefit from this type of manufacturing? Is the industry as ripe for change as I think?

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  1. Huh. I never thought about the scale of manufactury. the 3d printing revolution really might not be in the garage so much, haha.


    As far as arms manufacturing? Not sure. Not familiar enough with it to make a guess, though I daresay being able to customize things on the fly out the door is on the way at some point, which will be huge.

  2. I hate to be Doctor Pessimism, but realistically it’s a matter of time before someone boneheaded gets a hold of the 3D tech and uses it to break the law . It’s human nature, but that’s not what the politcians will say. Once that happens, it’ll be illegal for make gun parts with your own printer.

    IIRC,in New Jersey it’s already illegal to make a gun in your home without a state specific license.

    • What concerns me more than 3d printing is that it’s only a matter of time before some columbine like crazed teenager saves his quarters and orders an 80% lower online, finishes it in his garage and uses it to build a completely unregistered AR with the idea of using it to go on a rampage – completely without mom or dad’s knowledge. It’s a real concern for anyone who appreciates our second amendment rights since it will be the exact thing the gun CONTROL (FREAKS) will leverage to put fear in the hearts of middle America.

      • Any teenagers with enough motivation and skill to complete the milling on an 80% lower are probably not the ones we need to be worrying about. Being able to do that would make them more desirable employees than the vast majority of young guys I see becoming carpenters these days.

      • Why, pray tell, would a suicidal, psychopathic, mass-murder intent punk care if his 80% lower was serial numbered or registered? The chances of him surviving his attack are remote, so prosecution under (unconstitutional) firearms laws is unlikely.

        Perhaps you are concerned that this is the only means by which he can obtain a functioning AR-15 platform, regardless of the fact that he still has to purchase and fit together all the other parts that make the thing actually work, from triggers to magazines to ammunition. Could happen in the basement, I suppose, if the parents are completely clueless.

        On the other hand, to date, there does not seem to have been any difficulty for these whackos to obtain the weapons they want or need to live (and die) out their sociopathic fantasies.

        Next item – under what pretense, and what government authority, can anyone be denied their natural, civil and Constitutionally protected right to purchase, complete, own and bear an 80% lower? Anybody? I believe the Second Amendment says, “…shall not be infringed.”

  3. There will be some people who don’t care and buy the printers anyway and make guns for fun. Will criminals do the same? Very doubtful. I am not sure most have the time or money to get started. Even with prices dropping they would still have to rob a lot of liquor stores and gas stations to get the money to but the printer, computer and materials. In the time they do that they can just go steal a gun with a lot less effort.

    I will probably buy a 3d printer when the prices come down more. I am a sucker for tech and I could have fun experimenting or making plastic parts for guns and cars. Will I be making large amounts of either? Probably not.

  4. If I can one day get magpul quality plastic parts printed then I think it will be huge. With good plastic you could eve print out parts an glue or screw them together like make a replacement ar stock parts and put them together to make a whole new stock

  5. Mobile phones suffered from all those same drawbacks 30 years ago. Way back in the “dark ages” I told some friends that the day would soon come when people didn’t bother with a “wired” telephone solution. “We will all have a PERSONAL phone and phone number that we’ll take with us wherever we go.” The all laughed at me and said that was ridiculous and impractical. Really? Look at the world we live in today. If I’d had the money to invest in a couple start-ups I’d be a billionaire today.

    3D printing is still in its infancy. The day will soon come when nearly every household has a 3d printer and we won’t be tied to a single color or even material. There’s a company out there that’s already produced a 1911 that was totally built out of 3D printed metal parts. The day’s coming when you’ll be able to plug your memory card into your 3D home printer, load a cartridge filled with the appropriate material and print just about whatever you need. Complex electronic items or some materials (glass) may be out of reach for the foreseeable future but how many simple things might you buy from week to week that you could just as easily print yourself at home? Dishes, Tupperware, storage boxes, electrical wall plates, kids’ toys, home decor items… The list is almost endless. Now thinks what that would mean to world economics. Labor is taken completely out of the production equation for all those items.

    The world is in for some big changes in the near future.

    • ^^^ This
      People also said those wacky flying machines could never be used for anything but novelty entertainment and races because of “insert reasonable sounding excuse here”. People will be printing whatever they want out of their homes in about 20 years.

      • There were “scientists” who said rockets would never reach Earth orbit, let alone leave Earth entirely. Too heavy, with all that fuel and all. They had the calculations to prove it, too!

        Trouble was, they forgot to factor in the weight of fuel lost in the trip. ;D

    • This was ill-informed tripe by some sad education system failure who thinks that ‘global warming ain’t real cuz winter was cold’. Or who can’t change his own tire, let alone rebuild his own engine. Either way, he’s not really relevant in life, he’s just along for the ride. I’d do a response, but it’s really not worth the effort – anyone this clueless has barely come to grips with the earth being something other than flat.

      Despite the fact that self-driving trucks are already in commercial use, $20 says he has no idea that self-driving cars are the near future.

  6. 3D printing and metal sintering can potentially reduce product costs across the board, as you can effectively cut out a large chunk of the R&D costs required to do prototyping and development of the tooling and production processes that would be previously required to produce products by molding, forging, machining, etc.

    It’s pretty incredible when you realize that you can simulate almost all of the product tests you could think of, make changes without wasting material and machine time, and spit out a refined and functional product – and you didn’t have to build a specialized production line to do any of it.

    Still though – where’s my damn replicator?

  7. One thing I’m thinking might happen is a shift away from a conventional manufacturing setup, where you get more and more local machining/printing shops that replace conventional gun stores. Instead of purchasing entire firearms, these stores might purchase licenses to CAD schematics for a given make of firearm and build it on site. This would give the customer greater control over the final product, in terms of both the materials used and customized ergonomics (resized pistol grips, tailored scales for 1911 styled hanguns, etc.).
    This would have the added flexibility of allowing such establishments to print open sourced firearms at the customer’s request.

  8. Well ok I will chime in here.
    Will every Tom, Dick, and Harry have a 3D printer in their bedroom, and pump out plastic guns. No…
    And of course we don’t have a million bucks laying around for a metal based printer either.
    Now Costco sells massive amounts of stuff that other people make. I think a better analogy might be GE, or Sony. They actually make stuff on a massive scale.
    3D printing has an important place. First off during development you can produce unique parts for testing. Now for a GE to toss a few million bucks for a metal based 3D printer is like buying a Big Mac for you or I.
    They can test these parts, and refine them, prior to tooling up a more traditional manufacturing line to produce them in mass. If you want to test fit parts, it doesn’t matter if they are plastic or metal, we are talking about design. You could as an example produce an entire gun out of plastic. No it won’t fire a real bullet but if you want to test ergonomics, and figure out if the thumb switch is where it should be this is an easy and cheap way of doing so.
    These printers can also be used for master parts for forging, or creating future 3D models etc.
    Given the time it takes to print a part, and the cost, I don’t see this becoming the means of mass production. At least not anytime soon.
    I do think we might see future CNC systems using some sort of laser, or plasma based cutting technology. Assuming you can keep the part cool, and remove the materials accurately, it could be faster. Bit replacement would become a thing of the past. If the technology is faster, then it will surely be implemented. This is in part why forging is still used heavily. It creates the rough finished piece and then it is cleaned up. Yes I agree the billet parts being produced are really nice, in the car and gun manufacturing business.
    I won’t give up on the technology, but I think it is still not anything the politicians need to worry about.

  9. Or, you can get hold of some galvanized pipe and scrap wood, make a zip gun and save the bundle that you would have spent on the 3-D printer you’ve been eyeing.

  10. Additive manufacturing and 3D printing are not exactly the same thing. Both are broad categories with some overlap, but its like using the terms cuisine and food. When you use the term additive manufacturing you are suggesting the construction of final or end-user parts, but 3D printing is suggestive of making lower end or prototypes parts. The true revolution started with CAD, which facilitated rapid editing of designs. It proceeded through digital modeling of systems, stress, and aero/hydo-dynamics, and is now at rapid prototyping & additive manufacturing, which allow us to realize designs and shapes that would have been impossible to mill or construct using conventional methods, including CNC milling!

    To borrow from your analogy, picture a 12 megapixel image being printed on a $12k printer vs. printing the same image, at a necessarily lower resolution, on a $99 ink jet printer at home. Both are printing, both may give acceptable results depending on who you are and what your needs are, but the pro $12K printer can do more, including things that are impossible on the $99 printer and it it all much better. Also, printer cartridges were expensive for the same reasons most FDM printers materials (ABS, PLA excluded) are expensive…that is, they are all proprietary.

    Consumer grade 3D printers will fill much the same role as 2D printers, in our lives in the future. Thus, we won’t be seeing a lot of home printed firearms (not for the foreseeable future), but not for the reasons you state in the article.

  11. there are already 3D gun designs, but I believe that generally speaking they require some steel parts not currently 3D printable, at least not in a garage.

    when 3D printers can use stronger materials, then maybe we will have 3D printed guns.

  12. Practical RP just around the corner is a song that has been sung for more than 25years. See also practical solar, electric cars, self driving cars blah blah blah. Don’t buy any stock yet.

    • And then KO gave up the entire personal computer industry as a result. Anyone who has hacked on RT-11 knows that it was much better than MS-DOS or CP/M back in the day. Muuuuuuch better.

      Ah, those were the days — hacking RT-11 on a PDP-11/34. Good times. That was my idea of a “personal computer” in the late 70’s.

  13. If it gets cheaper to 3D print, I’d bet printing small parts and gun accessories (like custom slide cover plates, and sights) will be popular.

  14. I work in weapons maintenance for the DOD and I think on demand parts is going to be huge in my field. So much money will be saved in the stockage and shipping of weapons parts.

  15. “You know that material costs will be astoundingly high. You’ll burn though them at great speed. And you’ll always be running to the store/ordering online more cartridges for whatever material you’ve just run out of, or are missing.”

    These aren’t inkjet printers. The materials for current 3-d printers are about as expensive as printer paper, not printer ink. It’s sold on spools by the kilogram. A kilo costs about $26, and you could print for weeks nonstop on that spool alone. It’s not expensive, and you don’t run out suddenly.

  16. I think 3D printing, both plastic and especially metal, has a huge future in the area of parts replacement. It can be difficult to stock every last part for every last mechanical thing in the world, but just about any non-electronic part could be fabricated from a digital file ‘on demand’.

  17. No matter what comes of it China will own that market too. Especially once liberals make 3D printers illegal because someone made a single shot .380 out of plastic.

  18. I see 3D printers being a blessing for anyone that owns or collects any kind of old machinery, cars, tractors, trucks or any “stuff” that the original manufacturer no longer supports with parts, or the manufacturer is long gone. Some examples I can think of, radio knobs for a ’52 Hudson automobile, gas engine parts for 100 year old Maytag washing machines, housings for a 50 year old chainsaw, etc. These printers will help those of us that love AND use old tools and machines to keep them working.

  19. I imagine one of the most accessible uses for 3D printers today would be to manufacture custom grips.

    Forget about generic finger grooves – imagine having them shaped precisely to your hand. This could be accomplished using today’s technology.

    How much would you be willing to pay for a grip printed just for your hand?

    • THIS.

      Speaking as someone who inadvertently helped launch ‘OMG 3D PR1NT3D GUNZ!!!111!1’ as a major news story, making primary firearm components (i.e. receivers and other major items) will really be a small segment. The true impact of 3D printing on the firearms industry will be ever-increasing usage for prototyping (pictures from SHOT this year had more 3D printed prototypes than you can shake a stick at), and truly personalized firearm furniture.

      Given how competitive Olympic shooting has become and how cutting-edge tech-heavy each new round of Olympics is, I’m honestly amazed that the hyper-custom walnut grips on 50m pistols have not yet given way to 3D printed versions. I chatted with a Mike Vasquez (who very closely follows 3D printing use in sports, and has helped with a few Olympic sports teams) a few months back about 3D printing in Olympic shooting sports – to my surprise, he wasn’t aware of any current uses.

      So not only do I think that 3D printing will hit world-class competitive shooting very soon, but that it will very quickly filter down to the local level. I don’t think it’s a far-fetched idea to pick up a new tarp shotgun at your LGS and have them use a 3D scanner to get a quick model of your arm geometry. A little bit of modification to a standard model, and they can print off a new, truly bespoke buttstock for you to pick up the next day. Furthermore, I think there are many applications for customized furniture when it comes to injured and disabled shooters – just as the SB15 pistol brace was developed for a disabled shooter, I think 3D printing will be a huge boon to anyone who would like to enjoy the shooting sports, but conventional furniture is too limiting for their needs.

  20. Google Michigan Technical University metal 3d printer. Soon you’ll be able to print metal parts at home. And then print a printer! TTAG should do write up on it.

    • that’s what I’ve been wishing for, a metal 3D printer. Not that I’m going to buy one, but it would be nice to know they are out there.

    • I read that paper, assuming your talking about the open source mig welder used with a CNC control system….

      Adding spot welder tech to this and smaller dia wire would be awesome although they still have quite a ways to go before the parts were good enough to not need significant finish machining.

      • Yes, you are correct. The biggest problem I see is that the resolution of your finished part will be limited by your wire diameter. This is why the metal printers use the very fine powders to do the job. A powder can be made with a much smaller particle size than a wire diameter can be. I would love to see a project where someone overcame that obstacle. And of course a commercially available kit(my brain hurts to much as it is)

        Of course once you have the welded blank I would expect that a heat treat would be necessary to make the part workable again….

        • Detroiter, (sorry, that handle just screams being 20 years behind the rest of the world)…

          Google (or DuckDuckGo!) is your friend. The hobby crowd has been printing with powdered metal and lasers for the last few years. They aren’t out there screaming for attention, they’re just doing the actual work. Just like doing genetic manipulation in your guest room, the tools required cost far less than a decent used Japanese car and just like 1970, far more people are doing it than the cretins in the D3 acknowledge…

  21. Tech never takes off until they get the porn industry behind it. When you can 3D-print something … like that, you’ll have a market to 3D-print other stuff too.

    Until then I guess I’ll have to stay married and make due chewing pop tarts into upper case Ls.

    • The high-end of the porn industry is already fully involved in ‘real time interactive’ sexbots. Between the US and the Japanese we’ll have it drilled-down by 2016, and it’ll be “affordable” prior to 2020…

  22. I think parts for obsolete (and not so obsolete) weapons has the most potential, because every gunsmith would want one of these printers, thus creating more commercial potential. Think of how many customers your average gunsmith loses because people don’t want to leave their gun for a few weeks. If the part could be printed out in an hour, then you really have something. Add to that the possibility of manufacturing parts oversize to compensate for worn out guns – holes elongated, threads stripped, sliding parts abraded from decades of grit and oil paste – and now the gunsmith can afford to apply some real craftsmanship, as opposed to simply replacing parts.

    Eventually, the patents for 3-D metal printing are going to lapse, and the local gunsmith will be able to look up a design from an open-source database, download the part information, and make a new firing pin (or whatever) for any weapon, no matter how old, obscure, or obsolete, If the design is not available, then he would need to create it, or scan the old part and correct for wear and breakage.. In a couple of hours, a new part is ready, which is much faster than Numrich, and as long as the part is strong enough, everybody is happy. Raw materials would be as cheap as mig wire, and most small parts would easy to design, given an example to work from. The only stumbling block is the parts library – the CAD designs for each part. Many of these designs are patent-free and publicly available. Maybe the 3D printer manufacturers could create and distribute these libraries in order to help printer sales.

    Right now, the only plastic gun parts that I can think of are grip panels, shock buffers, and magazines. I suppose a big enough printer could do hand-guards and rifle stocks. The one plastic gun that the guy printed out was interesting, but mostly a curiosity – nobody is seriously going to use one for hunting or target practice, and self defense really calls for more than a single-shot pistol. I hope he can take it to the next level, but to make anything other than a “disposable” gun of limited lifetime, you need to have stronger materials. Nobody is going to shoot one of these every week for a lifetime, then hand it down to his grand-kid.

    I bet that when the price for a 3-d metal printer gets down to the cost of normal office equipment – a few hundred dollars – that every smith will have one.

  23. 1. As 16V indicates, the state of the art among non-industrial experimenters is moving along rather rapidly.

    2. 3D printing is better suited to prototyping and small runs of specialized parts. Right now, the build-up rates are too slow with DMLS to make it a viable way to crank out lots of guns.

    3. Here’s something that most people don’t think too much about: investment casting. Ruger makes lots of their guns and major parts with investment (aka “lost wax”) casting. There are 3D printers that will print in wax. Print a part, put a mold around it, melt out the wax, fill with metal, and you need do only the finish machining. Once you get the hang of this, I’d wager that you could finish the parts with a hand file and polishing paper over a week of spare time and arrive at a workable result.

    4. While it seems that 3D printers for metal printing are hideously expensive, what is becoming more and more obvious to lots of people is that you can make most of a handgun on a 3 or 4 axis CNC benchtop mill. These aren’t hideously expensive, and this level of machine has the CNC controlled s/w and conversion issues from a manual mill well pioneered by now, so it isn’t a huge hassle to figure out how to order one of the little Sieg ChiCom benchtop mills, order up some ballscrews, motors drives, steppers or motors, and re-purpose an old PC to driving the thing.

    5. Making barrels for handguns isn’t as difficult as it is for rifles. Hell, if you really wanted to do it the hard way, make up a mandrel with your rifling on it, bore out a piece of 4140 to barely over-size, heat up the 4140 and crush it down onto the mandrel with a hydraulic press and some clamping bars. Crude, but I’ll bet you get an effective handgun barrel out of it.

  24. Look at the evolution of 2D printers. I can remember using one in the 70’s that gave a barely legible copy of a document and a very fuzzy copy of a B&W photo.
    Now you can get razor crisp color printouts for less than $100.
    There was an outcry against color printers because they made counterfeiting money too easy, while that problem was solved by changing how money was printed, I don’t think the same solution will work with 3D gun parts.

  25. I think you should put more effort into learning about stereolithography than you do for learning about stocks.

    3D printers are not a fad. And neither are they the technological turbo button that will change the face of development. Asking who would want one or what you would do with it after you’ve made a few toys, or talking about how “print cartridges” are expensive or will become obsolete, shows that you researched the subject as much as gun control politicians research about guns. Insert 30-caliber-clip sound byte here.

    Everyone *should* want a 3D printer, but few seem to understand why. The advantage over a CNC mill, and conversely the reason they will not change how product development happens now, is that they do the exact same thing, but cheaper in price and quality. You can prototype a non-functioning model for less expense, but it won’t be remotely as strong as a milled part, whether aluminum or glass-filled nylon. A 3D printer makes excellent salad bowls, but flat-out dangerous gun barrels. If you just need to make sure a bracket will bolt up to a frame, this is your solution. If you want a functioning (ghost/undetectable) gun, stop now.

    The usefulness of a 3D printer in a household is that you won’t have to buy crappy Chinese salad bowls and jelly shoes at WalMart anymore, you can make them, in any color, any style, and any design you can imagine, the cost is somewhat higher but the value is exponentially greater because A) you had to actually think and be creative, and B) you crafted it yourself. If that doesn’t massively propagate American (and other first-world) education, ingenuity, manufacturing, and entrepreneurship, nothing will. School science projects? Imagine something that makes Legos look like a hoop and stick. That’s 3D printing.

    For prototyping invention, it is hopelessly inferior to actual CNC. It takes too long, the part is flimsy., and the money you save is never worth the difference. Actual stereolithographed parts in the aerospace industry are metal sand that is sintered by a laser to create parts too complex to mill, at the very least, an otherwise conventional but industrial-grade 3D printer that feeds glass-filled nylon that would be impossible to use on any current consumer-grade printer. This is akin to the carbon fiber loom custom-made in-house by Toyota for their LFA A-pillars. These machines are the bleeding edge of manufacturing technology, akin to what CNC mills were 30 years ago, and just as expensive.

    It frustrates me when gun control vocalists drag out 3D printed guns like they’re a legitimate risk to civilization. John Malcovich’s character made an undetectable gun out of better material (epoxy poured into a mold and sanded to tolerance) when 3D printing wasn’t even an idea in someone’s head, and nothing ever came of it.


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