Why criminals also love 3D printing

Government regulation on 3D printing is becoming a larger topic as this technology is becoming much more available for the average consumer to get their hands on. With desktop printers dropping steadily below $2,000 – almost anyone can gain access to a printer. Aside from that, 3D printing services exist on an international level. With the availability of this kind of manufacturing, the wrong hands can get ahold of some dangerous parts.

To my knowledge, a very limited amount of criminal activity has occurred through 3D printing. However, that’s not to say that no criminal activity will arise.

What has been done already

To start, an artist has created a 3D design of a key. This isn’t an ordinary key; it is the key which unlocks handcuffs that are currently in use of Dutch police. The design itself was released online, free for anyone to 3D print. The scary thing – this key was created based on a photograph – nothing more.

On a larger scale, one instance involved the manufacturing of a card skimmer which was installed on an ATM. A team of technologically savvy thieves designed a skimming piece, 3D printed it, placed it on the machine, and made some serious cash! This amendment to the ATM gave criminals access to over $400,000!

Controversy on Thingiverse

Another big debate comes from a design placed on Thingiverse. This design consists of a 3D printable lower receiver to an AR-15 machine gun. At least in the United States, it is very easy to obtain virtually any part to an AR-15 over-the-counter aside from the lower receiver. This design on Thingiverse could be the missing piece to bringing unregistered firearms into the United States. Getting ahold of a rifle without a background check could potentially be very dangerous, and 3D printing might be the one to blame.

In addition to the lower receiver of an AR-15 being created, an AR-15 magazine has also been created. With the open source 3D model available for anyone to download at Thingiverse, this magazine could easily be altered. If criminals used 3D printing to create a lower receiver in conjunction with an altered magazine, they could get their hands on undocumented fully automatic weapons with high capacity magazines. Sounds a little bit scary?

Although some of these thoughts seem at least a little bit scary, I think it’s way too early to start regulating 3D printing. Sure, this technology can be used for bad – but aside from the card skimmer, there haven’t been any criminal reports in regards to 3D printing, at least that I know of. In addition to the lack of criminal activity, 3D printing isn’t the only manufacturing technology that thieves or terrorists could get their hands on. Machining in particular could be involved with a variety of replicated firearms and illegal devices, yet the United States government hasn’t done too much to limit that industry.

To the readers, what do you think? What draws the line within 3D printing? Should we be regulating this technology, or are the current laws in place enough? 


  1. Kiwidunc says

    Your commentary hints at support for restrictive legislation. Socially and morally responsible individuals accept that freedom does have a price – this technology is amazing and very exciting. What a few individuals choose to do with the technology will not be prevented by excluding open access to it.

  2. Jack says

    An AR15 is not a machine gun, it is a semi-automatic sporting rifle. Acquiring the necessary mil-spec parts in order to make an AR fully automatic would be extremely difficult for any would-be criminal. Also, unregistered firearms are everywhere in the United States, because many states do not require that anyone register any of their firearms. Passing a background check when purchasing a firearm and registering a firearm are not the same thing…though many people seem to think so, for whatever reason. It is important that you are aware that as long as there is never any intent to sell or distribute them, it is not illegal to manufacture your own firearms in the United States. I could mill or print a lower-receiver for personal use, buy all other parts online, and then assemble a fully functional AR15 without any kind of license to do so, and still be acting completely within the law. Regulating and trying to limit this potential practice will only stop hobbyists and gunsmiths…your would-be-criminals generally don’t give a damn about regulations.

  3. Chester says

    “An AR15 is not a machine gun, it is a semi-automatic sporting rifle. Acquiring the necessary mil-spec parts in order to make an AR fully automatic would be extremely difficult for any would-be criminal.”

    making any rifle fully automatic is not as hard as some would believe, all you need is a metal file and the know how. that said, this tech is amazing and should not be restricted just because some people will use it for illicit reasons.

  4. says

    “making any rifle fully automatic is not as hard as some would believe, all you need is a metal file and the know how. that said, this tech is amazing and should not be restricted just because some people will use it for illicit reasons.”

    This is simply not true. Perhaps modifying a rifle to be an open breech slamfire auto isn’t the most difficult thing in the world, but it will be unreliable and unsafe to operate. True full auto conversion is far from trivial. Go check the tors for auto conversion documents. It is not a matter of filing something down or removing some mythical pin. Modern semi-autos are designed specifically to make full auto conversions difficult. (For the AR-15 there is a little thing called a lightning link that claims to be a drop in full auto conversion but results seem spotty and it requires an SP1 bolt carrier)

    Beyond all that, full auto is an almost useless feature of any firearm short of a SAW or similar mounted machine gun used for support and cover. Jamming and feeding become more common at high rates of fire, and aiming becomes spray and pray. Hollywood loves to glorify automatic weapons (someone hailing a storm of bullets is just better cinema than someone carefully aiming and popping off a handful of well placed shots) but the reality is that it’s rarely used by anyone who knows what the hell they’re doing.

  5. Lyric says

    I’m impressed to see the well-informed comments on this topic by Jack and nutbastard. Even some of the simpler automatic rifles, such as the WASR 10 (civilian semi-auto AK-47) Are tricky to convert to full auto, even if you have the proper tools and some gunsmithing knowhow. And also the point is overplayed since full auto is nice for covering fire but less nice for hitting things smaller than a barn or still having ammo after fifteen seconds have elapsed.

    The fact is that the overwhelming majority of firearms in the United States are undocumented and totally legal, since there’s no good reason for most states to implement registration. Firearm registration has proven to be tedious, expensive, and ineffective at deterring, detecting or preventing crime in the states that use it.

    Guns in the hands of criminals are a fact of life. No law can change that fact. Guns in the hands of responsible, law-abiding citizens is banned in many of our major cities. A home-printable AR receiver of questionable reliability is the least of our concerns.

  6. robert says

    No the gun issues you mention do not scare me. First of all the military round that the AR-15 fires is designed to be less lethal than the battle rifles it replaced since it takes more people to care for the wounded than to walk past the dead in a fight. It also isn’t legal to hunt deer with it in most states because it is so weak a round that even shooting 120 pound deer the ability to actually kill them reliably and cleanly isn’t there.

    Oh, and we should hope that all the crazies that use semi-auto rifles convert them to full-auto. Why? Simple really, they won’t be able to carry enough ammo to kill many people. Control is near impossible unless you are a good size AND well trained, and even then the control you have isn’t all that good. Also at 10+ rounds a second they will be reloading every 3-5 seconds(remember they made a big deal about the reload times being so far apart because of the large capacity mags. Well with full-auto they will have tons of chances to disarm the person while he is reloading. There is a reason why the military went to the 3 round burst mode as standard instead of full-auto. Inability to hit your target and the rapid ammo consumption.

    But for those that (correctly) mention that many states don’t register guns. Remember this, if you have a background check done through the government you damn well better consider yourself registered. They have your name, address and all other ID info linking you to buying that gun. you can bet the feds registered your ass.

  7. J says

    I feel really bad for anyone trying to build a 3d printed AR? The content needs a lot of work, maybe something not shown at defcon and is actually shocking?

  8. rat fink says

    You can buy an 80% finished lower receiver and use a drill press for the final 20%. Bamm undocumented gun… And it’s 100% legal.
    Why are people freaking out now? People have been doing at home builds for years. Making a good quality gun with parts you can buy online it’s easy.

  9. cognitus says

    it’s going to be a very long time before the materials used in 3d printing will be strong enough to replace steel parts in a gun. This point supersedes the issue of whether the design being printed is stock or modified to be fully automatic.

    In general, plastics aren’t suitable to replace metal gun parts, especially moving parts. Specifically, 3d printed materials are weak against tensile and sheer forces on the Z axis. This is because material is deposited layer by layer. The bond between one layer and the next is weaker than the bond on the X and Y axis of the current layer to itself. Not ideal when you’re talking about the kinds of stresses a modern firearm must withstand.

    The bottom line is; until 3d printed materials have performance characteristics similar to the various alloys used in firearms, it simply won’t be possible to swap-in 3d printed parts and expect the gun to actually function. You’d have as much luck whittling the part out of wood.

  10. Psykram says

    Also, ATM card skippers have been in used long before 3d printing. Magazines for weapons are purchasable at Wal-Mart. Nothing scary about this list at all. Fear Monger.

  11. Red Foreman says

    How about a non-detectable plastic knife or an all plastic gun for the airport check. Hell why stop there, the parts for a nuke. So now you can scare everyone with 3D printing like Obama tries to scare everyone about guns, only you could step up and really get it going.
    The only 3D Ar lower that I have seen failed after a few shots. This technology is good for a few widgits around the house right now. It has a long way to go before it will create the type of weapons you are trying to scare everyone with.

  12. TheMan says

    You either have an agenda, or have been severely mislead. This technology is our future. Everything should be moving towards mankind having to depend less on any other entity to provide for them. Imagine a world where you could print a home, then all furniture inside of it. Truly exciting.

  13. gern says

    It won’t be long before republicans in the US abolish the waiting period for guns so virtually anyone will be able to have one the second they want one anyway. They’re also working to abolish the training requirement for concealed carry.

    • ignant says

      Oh lord the sensationalism in this article. It’s like they’re predicting the end of the world should people get their hands on 3d printers. You can’t stop progress.

      Also the prior post has to be one of the most ignorant things I have read in a while then again you tend to get that with liberals. Do some research before spreading BS on the interwebs.

      It’s legal for a person in the US to make a firearm as long as they are legally able to own one. It does not need to be “registered”. There is no such thing on the federal level(thankfully). Waiting periods only exist in a few states and make absolutely no sense if a person already owns a gun. Several states also have constitutional carry so there is no requirement for any sort of training. They respect citizens freedom to be able to protect themselves unlike some police states(I’m looking at you NY). Many more states are moving in this direction as well. I have yet to hear where passing such a law has caused blood in the streets like sheeple like to spout.

      When the price point makes sense I’ll probably buy a 3d printer and every time I print an AR lower a liberal sh*ts their pants.

  14. says

    Oh my gosh, the criminal side never even crossed my mind. On the one hand, some things are going to be super great when 3D printing becomes available on a more widespread basis. On the other hand, the world is already full of insanely smart criminals, this is just going to make it easier for them!

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