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Are 3D printers on their way to becoming weapon factories?

That question arises following a notice from the FBI that it is looking to buy a $20,000 Stratsys Objet24 Personal 3D printer because the printer can “support the advanced technical exploitation of evolving and existing high technology explosive devices.”

“3D printers are manufacturing tools, and, like any manufacturing tool, it can do what you instruct it to do,” Shawn O’Grady, a digital fabrication specialist at the University of Michigan 3D Lab, pointed out to VentureBeat.

There’s no limit to the ways they can be used, he said, which stems in part from the fact that raw materials can include not only plastic, but also “plaster, ceramic, paper, sand, concrete, metals, and even food.”

The request-for-price notice, from the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC), specifically mentions the use of “polyjet or liquid polymer cured by UV light technology (stereolithography)” and added the following endorsement of the product’s quality:

The Objet24 Desktop Personal 3D printer is the only instrument capable of producing the high accuracy and resolution results to meet Agency testing standards. The printer also is the only one capable of meeting FBI support data recovery and thermal environment requirements. The Objet24 model is the only 3D printer that satisfies all the technical requirements of the FBI.

TEDAC, launched in 2003, is specifically charged with studying IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and other explosive devices from terrorist and insurgent organizations.

On its website, Stratsys touts the product’s ability to “print in layers thinner than a human hair for astonishingly accurate prototypes.” It also describes the model as “the first desktop system to print realistic models with small moving parts, thin walls and smooth, paintable surfaces.”

One possible application, according to 3D Printing Industry, is using the printer to rebuild exploded bombs, which could be useful in recreating a crime scene. The agency also could be expected to want to learn more about building a plastic bomb, such as a pipe bomb.

Or about building a plastic gun, which would be undetectable by metal scanners. A year ago, gun inventor Cody Watson demonstrated a working, 3D-printed plastic gun, and uploaded the design files to the Net.

Interesting, the MakerBot 3D printer maker – which Stratasys acquired last summer – took a stand at the end of 2012 against 3D printed weapons. On its Thingiverse site of downloadable 3D design files, the terms of service prohibit anything that could be used to create weapons. MakerBot barely enforced that prohibition until the gun massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of that year, after which it began enforcing the ban.



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