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Plastics, guns, and disruptive technology

For those of us in and around the plastics industry, additive manufacturing (AM), popularly known as 3D printing, is hardly breaking news. It's something we've been covering for a while because while it's not molding or any other sort of traditional plastics processing, it most certainly is a way to make things using plastics, and it carries the promise of being a hugely disruptive technology.

It's already impacting moldmaking and molding, changing the way some shops do business, and changing the way some people look at manufacturing in general. From prototyping to producing actual parts, AM has become increasingly important in the plastics processing industry. And as the emergent "maker" community proves, AM is very much in the public consciousness.

Recently, though, AM has been in the news in another example of how unanticipated the ramifications of disruptive technology inherently are.

You may well of heard of Cody Wilson by now, a law student at the University of Texas, and member of "Defense Distributed", a group that has launched a "Wiki Weapons" project to produce a firearm made of plastic via a 3D printer from a downloadable file.

While most everyone familiar with plastics would agree the material isn't exactly ideal for such an explosive and high-temperature application, Wilson says, "It only has to fire once." With downloadable files out on the Internet, anyone with access to a printer could manufacture many firearm components and perhaps, one day, a complete working gun. Or so the dream goes.

In the short term, what has been accomplished by Defense Distributed is the printing of the lower receiver of an AR-15, the same rifle used in the Sandy Hook massacre. The lower receiver is a component that serves as the base of the weapon and accommodates the stock, grip, trigger guard, and magazine.

The group was able to fire six rounds through an AR-15 with a plastic lower receiver before the receiver broke. Stratasys got wind of the project and confiscated the printer the group had leased.

Last week, the group apparently used a printed plastic 30-round magazine in a live-fire demonstration.

Of course, people have long been able to make their own guns, whether from kits or buying and assembling machined components, or what have you. Or just buy them or steal them.

The difference with printed guns? No metal. Which would make them much harder to detect, and also plays into the goal of circumventing gun control efforts. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) correspondingly has introduced legislation to reauthorize the 1988 Undetectable Firearms Act, which expires at the end of the year.

In other gun-related news, an individual on is proposing machining and selling injection molding dies so a do-it-yourselfer could make polymer high-capacity magazines using a benchtop injection molding machine, specifically mentioning Medium Machinery's $3000 model.

It seems the arms race never stops. Stay tuned.

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