Printing guns - should we be worried?

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:
As a former pistol shooter (when it was still legal in the UK) and a mechanical engineer I have to ...

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Earlier this year there was furore when it was reported that a 3D printed gun made out of plastic, which really didn't work well, was produced. And then last month it was announced that the 'World's first' 3D printed metal gun had been produced. If you have watched the video of the month you will have seen that it actually works pretty well, showing no sign of damage after firing more than 600 rounds. Perhaps it was obvious that someone was going to take on this challenge sooner or later, but should we be worried?

Rather cliché is it was made by a Texas firm. The company, Solid Concepts, is a specialist engineering firm that has been pretty upfront about what it is doing and its motivations in numerous interviews, all available online.

Solid Concepts wanted to dispel any notion that Direct Metal Laser Sintering, known generically as Selective Laser Melting (SLM), could not produce parts strong or accurate enough for real world applications, as well as highlight that 3D printing isn't just about making trinkets and Yoda heads.

The advancement of SLM is moving quickly and in the latest issue of Engineering Materials we have a couple of examples of where the technology is headed. Our feature on page 16 covers how Nasa is using SLM to help develop its next generation rocket system, actually test firing nozzles made using the process.

The examples of firing a gun and firing a rocket are actually not so different. Both are absolutely on the cusp of what is possible, with the temperatures and shockwaves involved challenging the experts for months at a time to get it right.

Despite worries that any old nutter will now have access to any old gun, this is not the case. And it is unlikely to ever be. If you think that you can simply download the plans, press print and a few minutes later re-enact your favourite Hollywood shoot 'em up then you're sadly mistaken.

With the cost of SLM machines somewhere in the region of £500k, and pretty considerable skill and expertise required to get it right, SLM is likely to stay an industrial process for years to come. So while you shouldn't worry about any sinister applications, the process is likely to have increasing impact as a genuine manufacturing technology.

It also makes me wonder how the technology might compare against an experience machinist using a micro-machining centre, technology which has been available for more than a decade at relatively low cost. And perhaps what is more worrying is that you can download the G-code to make a number of firearm parts for free on the internet relatively easily.

However, with a little perspective the real question for me is: despite the hype of 3D printing and interest in metal sintering, for small batch manufacturing - especially for the enthusiast in the shed - why would you not use a micro machining centre? It is cheaper, has a better finish, can use multiple materials much more easily and is faster.

Please let me know your thoughts, whether you agree or disagree, feel free to chime in.

From all here at Engineering Materials have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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As a former pistol shooter (when it was still legal in the UK) and a mechanical engineer I have to admit I was surprised at just how well Solid Concepts pistol performed, when I read that they made all parts except the springs and carried out no heat treatments I was especially impressed, I've seen a 1911 replacement barrel machined from a solid billet fail catastrophically, so to see an SLM part handle more than 500 rounds is impressive, I was honestly expecting the handgun to explode at some point during the tests. In purely engineering terms it's made me realise that SLM metal parts are a practical option for creating prototypes or even limited production runs. After all there are some shapes that machining centers have real problems creating but that can easily be 3D printed, this means that engineers need no longer to be restrained by what is practical for machining but can design parts for optimal performance.

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