Ethical Controls for 3D Printing

By Kalani Kirk Hausman, Richard Horne

New systems promise to protect against the creation of 3D-printable firearms by identifying characteristic components, which could run into problems when they block the fabrication of any tube that is 9mm or 10mm or any other diameter matching firearm ammunition. Just as with DRM, as long as self-created 3D printers are available, any software controls can be easily bypassed to allow the fabrication of protected designs.

Consider the Liberator, the first 3D-printed functional firearm. (Note that the firearm has been modified from its original design files in various ways to render it inoperative for educational purposes.) These weapons present a difficulty for law enforcement because although their designs are intended to comply with current U.S. laws for legal firearms, they could be modified to be undetectable by current security scanners.


In addition to 3D-printed weapons, it is equally possible to create other controlled designs such as high-security keys for handcuffs and other secure locks. Because these functional keys are made entirely of plastic, they could easily be carried through security metal scanners by criminals. Students at MIT recently created 3D-printable models of the controlled key blanks used by Schrade’s Primus high-security locks.

The uncut key blanks cannot normally be acquired by civilians. Researchers have been able to duplicate physical keys using photographs from up to 200 feet away, needing only the blanks to create fully functional keys capable of bypassing traditional physical security controls in government, medical, and detention facilities.


As 3D-printable drugs become available, or (for that matter) 3D-printable body tissues and organs, ethical controls will encounter difficulties with this new form of manufacturing. Where the public once was concerned with athletes doping their blood, it may someday have to find ways to identify custom body modifications that allow all manner of extreme physical feats.

Software alone will not provide a technical method of control in the ethical or unethical uses of products that were once simply impossible but which are now becoming more than possible. The medical field may present the public with more than just 3D-printed tissues for reconstructive surgery and medical treatments in a few decades.

Legal controls such as patents are already facing challenges when applied to biological organisms; digitally fabricated viruses and other such materials are entirely possible, and will present a whole new spectrum of difficulties in their application, liability, and legal controls.