The Third Industrial Revolution

Recently there has been a lot of talk about a third industrial revolution in the making. It is of course that involving 3D printing. Take a look at the other articles on the website for an overview.

The thing about these machines is that they can produce individual tailor made objects at low cost, something that was not really possible in the days of mass production, when multiples were cheap but individual one off projects very expensive.

It is a contentious technology though for several reason, the first being its versatility. A few months ago we had the first fully printed gun, the plans were put online for free before being removed but only after more than 100 000 people downloaded them.100 000 more unlicensed guns in the world possibly. Check out this article.

Another reason is that these machines will completely change manufacturing. The old days of heavy machinery in production lines might be numbered, and this means that the power and financial strength that the organizations that have control of these systems currently posess is about to be lost.

So where should somewhere like MIT here in Cambridge MA stand? They have to support new technology, it is their job, but in doing so they might be undermining their own foundations, rooted as they are in large scale US industry.

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

As well as the printable gun though there are obviously a million good uses for this technology. Two weeks ago I mentioned an engineering company that is testing an aeroplane engine that uses printed parts, and in case of dire need you can now print a prosthetic hand for about $150 through an open source website. Read the article here.

Last week the Bassetti Foundation sponsored a series of events in San Francisco based around these problems. One of the main speakers was Chris Anderson, ex editor of Wired magazine and author of the book Makers, he is a leader in thinking on these matters. There is plenty of information on the website for interested readers, including videos of the symposium about the political and social implications of a move towards 3D printed manufacture.

3D Printed Motorbike

3D Printed Motorbike

Check out the photos too, here is a printed motorbike. They can produce far more than you imagine.

The Future for Smartguns

Smart phones are a way of life, but have you heard about smartguns? Here in the USA a debate is raging about the introduction of this type of technology, while in Germany it has already passed into law. But firstly, what is a smartgun and what type of technology does it involve?

The idea is that only the rightful owner of the weapon can fire it. There are different mechanisms on the market for ensuring this and I would like to introduce a few here.

Trigger Smart is an Irish company. They have a system that uses radio waves. The weapon has a receiver placed in the handle and the owner is given a tiny HF transponder (something similar to the device found in your car keys) that can be worn in a ring or a bracelet. The gun will only fire when the correct ID number is received from the ring or bracelet.

The manufacturers argue that this makes the gun safer, as it cannot be fired by the kids while you are out or by an intruder or attacker that takes the gun off you in a fight. In the event of a shooting the police can also jam the frequencies and make the gun useless. In some cases a chip can even be placed under the owner’s skin.

Way back in 1975 a magnetic version of the same idea was invented, and is generally believed to work very reliably, although it is not widely used. Another system uses biometrics, identifying the owner through their grip and characteristics of their hands, but even the developers argue that the system is only 90% effective.

One problem with biometrics is that the gun needs time to process all of this input, but a US Austrian company called Biomac have a system that uses optical sensors to measure data from below the skin. They hope to design a system that will be accurate and work within half a second of picking up the gun.


Possible smartgun biometrics?

The gun lobby argue however that these security systems make the gun potentially more dangerous as any intruder may be able to block the radio systems, the batteries or other electronic parts may fail, parents who like to shoot with their children would have to buy them a dedicated weapon, and what if the owner is not in the house and another family member needs to defend themselves using the gun?

Even pro gun control groups are not convinced as it might even make gun ownership seem safer, leading to more sales, so it are very difficult to find in the USA.

The extent to which the gun lobby influences politics here is difficult to appreciate from outside the country. There is an attempt at the moment to make it illegal to buy a gun for someone who has been declined permission to own one. At the moment if I buy a beer for someone under 21 or give watered down wine to my son (as we did in Italy) I risk going to prison, but if I buy a gun for my friend who has been declined a license on psychological grounds I do not. There is no guarantee that it will pass though, as any form of gun control is fought tooth and nail and with the advantage of high financial backing.

It is not a completely dark picture though. The state of New Jersey actually passed a law to say that smartgun technology must be fitted to new weapons as soon as it has been developed enough and shown to be reliable. In Germany a law was passed in 2009 that goes even further, in that the technology will have to be fitted to all weapons old and new once it is available and proven. Unfortunately proven etc might take many years.

What none of the above really does is to address one of the biggest problems of gun ownership here in the USA, suicide. There is a massive increase in suicide rates in states where gun ownership is high. Suicide rates using other means remain constant, but a gun is a no return tool. Extremely efficient and easy to manage, success is almost guaranteed, and none of the technology that is currently under development can address this problem.

This Harvard University link explains the relationship, but it is enough to say that suicide rates are double in states where gun ownership is high, although non firearm suicide rates are about the same. To give an idea there were almost 20 000 firearm suicides in 2009 out of 36 000 total deaths, while there were only 11 000 murders.

The debate will rage for many years to come, but what part will smartgun technology play?

Print Your Own Gun

Last week I went to a street fair in Boston. It was an interesting event to say the least, it was a celebration of local inventors and craftspeople. We made trans-music with a home built computerized digital orchestra, rode on electric motorbikes, played with robots and a large wooden catapult. Have a look at some of the photos here.

The robot collection was extraordinary, but one object really made me think. Someone had built there own 3D printer and was making objects as we watched.

3D printing has come up on this site before, but the fact that somebody could build one themselves at home had escaped me. And these types of printers have recently been in the news here in the USA for a very serious reason, somebody has claimed that they could produce a gun using only 3d printing.

Cody Wilson, 3D weapon advocate

Cody Wilson, 3D weapon advocate

Defense Distributed, a group of gun advocates, recently posted a YouTube video trying to raise money to make a printable gun.  The concept is to use fast-improving 3D printer technology to create gun parts that could be assembled into a fully-workable firearm.

“As the printing press revolutionized literacy, 3D printing is in its moment,” Cody Wilson, 24, founder of Defense Distributed, said in the video clip.

Three-dimensional printers have been used industrially for years to produce plastic or metal objects, but as the prices for entry level machines have fallen as low as $500, the printers have become more prevalent among hobbyists and educational institutions.

Users can create or download a data file, then simply click “Print” and the machines will create the three-dimensional prototype.

Now this organization would like to distribute a data file for a workable gun, something that may well not even be illegal over here, the law remains fuzzy in the face of such technology.

Fortunately the printer company have taken their machine back from Mr. Wilson as it is illegal to manufacture guns without a license, but he has raised over $20 000 for his project so far so may well soon be able to buy another.

Another hobbyist has actually produced some parts for a gun, assembled it and fired it more than 200 times so this is certainly not science fiction. Have a look at this article in Gizmag.

Is this just a crazy idea? Or could it undermine any gun controls put in place and put weapons into everybody’s hands? The second is Mr. Wilson’s goal unfortunately.

This kind of unforeseen use for an otherwise interesting new technology reminds me of why I keep on battling for ethics and responsibility in innovation through my work.