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If you think 3D printing is just firing blanks, just you wait

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? This week I met a gun nut. I knew this immediately because he was an American with a moustache. Americans with moustaches are always gun nuts. Don’t blame me, I don’t make the rules. It is simply the way of things.

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Sitting down at a gala dinner, I found myself sharing a table with an amiable group of US citizens who work in various fields of tech and engineering. As soon as I spotted the moustaches and heard the friendly mid-west accents greet me, I knew I had to be on my best behaviour. As the sole Brit at the table, I was representing The Queen, David Beckham and stiff (but shaven) upper lips.

Thrusting my hands in the air, I shouted: “Don’t shoot me!”

After a couple of seconds of indecision, they agreed not to, for which I am grateful, although I sensed it was touch-and-go for a while there. As it turned out, they were all gun nuts, I mean owners. One was from Missouri (so my opening gambit definitely paid off) and a couple told me they came from Oklahoma City. Without thinking, I told them I knew a song about their home and promptly winced, but they gave me a warm smile in reply.

It was only later I realised they probably thought I meant the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. What I was actually thinking of was Steel Panther’s Girl From Oklahoma City.

Hair on your nipples, zits on your box,
In Oklahoma City you’re considered a fox.

Which just goes to show that Americans, at least, know how to behave when meeting strangers in polite society. Brits, by contrast, are under the illusion that complaining about things – the weather, the food, the traffic, the world at large, the unbearable lightness of being, etc – are acceptable means of starting pleasant conversation. We are insufferable boors.

Anyway, having at my mercy a table of gun nuts owners who happen to work in engineering was too good an opportunity to miss. These are people who understand hardware, precision tooling, material strength and structural resistance. It therefore allowed me to raise my favourite topic of the moment: how 3D printing is an over-hyped, steaming pile of crap.

Even with the right kind of DMLS printer and the claimed ability to produce “near full density” alloys, the size and expense of small-run production-scale devices is too daft to treat seriously. So what we’re left with is a rapidly expanding variety of shitty little whizz-whir desktop 3D printers that produce a range of useless, multi-coloured, thermo-plastic turds.

The popular press, in the meantime, embarrasses itself repeatedly by reporting on non-stories about the capabilities of 3D printing. The price of 3D-printed prosthetic limbs with moving parts is one such. While the very idea of producing affordable artificial body parts customised exactly to the individual body in question is thrilling, the reality is less so. The principal reason that a 3D-printed prosthetic is so much cheaper than existing types is that the charitable person doing the 3D printing is doing it for free.

Wow, only $400 for a new hand? Actually, that’s $400 just for the plastic. The CAD modelling, setup, the 3D printer itself, electricity, workspace rent and labour – these jobs can take hours or even days to complete – were offered at no cost by a charitable fellow in the hope of going to heaven. I suspect some may also be doing this in the hope of attracting some gentle PR to boost business and help pay for the bloody turkey of a 3D printer which he wishes he’d never bought in the first place because it’s useless and cost him a fucking fortune.

I am not being unpleasantly cynical. I admire the altruism of these 3D printer owners. You deserve at least something back for being a pioneer at the expense of your own second mortgage.

Sure, it’s easy to slag off a technology still in its infancy. A cursory glance at my back catalogue of product reviews through the 1990s and 2000s reveals I was extremely critical of digital photography and inkjet printing in their early days, and look where they are today. However, in my defence, the products I reviewed at the time really were pants. Digital cameras in the 1990s gave results akin to photographing a CRT television set playing a 1980s straight-to-videotape Van Damme movie on a VHS cassette hired from an independent video rental shop. Inkjet printers in those days turned any image into a sub-standard masterpiece of joint-the-dots pointillism.

I didn’t care that the digital imaging industry was “emerging” and that one day it might be possible to capture superb 4000x3000-pixel photos on a mobile phone. I wasn’t reviewing potentials and customers weren’t interested in buying possibilities. The products I reviewed were shit. And this is the case right now for 3D printing.

Call me impatient but I am frustrated by the disappointingly slow progression in this particular emerging industry. Despite the hype, every time I am shown the output of the latest 3D printers, it turns out to be a near-identical conveyor belt of brittle toy cars, waxy skulls, top-heavy vases and miniature Stormtrooper helmets. It’s like stumbling across the Hideous Ornaments section in Poundland. I may as well be at an infant school garden fete, admiring the pottery class’s charming but predictably awful offerings of ribbed jugs and wonky ashtrays.

Things can get silly in 3D printing’s desperation to be treated seriously for anything other than its core function of prototyping with thermoplastics. A current Kickstarter project is enticing backers for the development of a kitchen device that 3D-prints foodstuffs such as icing, chocolate and peanut butter. Fed up with the misery of squeezing a £3 icing gun to draw a heart on a cake? Get a £300 machine to do it for you!

Good luck and all that, guys, but FFS.

I have a different theory. Remember how camcorders, satellite television and video download services, in turn, were given impetus by the porn industry? What 3D printers need is its own killer application to get things moving. It won’t be porn – ouch, those rough edges! – but quite possibly the small arms industry.

The Reg has vaporised previous myths about 3D-printed plastic pistols but the potential of a massive North American interest in customised handguns constructed from on-demand, precision-printed metal parts could give 3D printing a real kick up the arse. Not water-pistol lookalikes that blow off your own hand when you fire them (which, come to think of it, could explain some of the recent burgeoning interest in prosthetic hands) but one that actually shoots bullets at things. Indeed, it brings new meaning to the very concept of a “killer” app.

It’s not about cheaper guns or even about getting access to guns illegally so much as being able to order custom firearms without fuss. Personally, I’m a weed when it comes to scary guns but I’ve always been intrigued by those spy films in which someone constructs one out of separate, innocuous machined parts. Think of the unlikely rifle in The Day of The Jackal or Scaramanga’s extremely silly (Man With The) golden gun – except please don’t 3D-print gun parts from gold unless you’re absolutely determined to lose that hand.

What do my rootin’ tootin’ gun nut owning American colleagues think?

Thoughtful nods around the table are followed by a discussion on machine tooling and the inherent structural disadvantage of constructing adequately strong objects in progressive layers. Phew, what a relief! I had worried that gun nuts owners might all be Tea Party supporters, in which case they would attribute the firing of a bullet not so much to the pressure of an explosive expansion of gases as to “God’s will”.

I’ve also heard it said that Americans don’t do irony but it’s not true. As the conversation took a rapid turn away from 3D printing to the pros and cons of various firearms and their stopping power, I made a playful observation that I was sitting among Team America.

Without waiting a beat, Mr Moustache next to me raised his glass in reply.

“Fuck yeah!”

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He is not against gun ownership and has enjoyed target shooting sports on many occasions. He does not, however, like the idea of being a shooting target himself and wonders whether being able to shoot back would actually increase the chances of becoming one.

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