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First 3-D-Printed Metal Gun Shows Tech Maturity

The 3-D-printed metal pistol showcases 3-D printing's maturity rather than enabling home weapon manufacturing

2 min read
First 3-D-Printed Metal Gun Shows Tech Maturity
A 3-D-printed metal gun made by direct metal laser sintering.
Photo: Solid Concepts

The world's first 3-D–printed metal gun aims to prove a point about the reliability of 3-D printing technology. But its makers don't plan on revolutionizing the manufacture of firearms by making the process available in every household.

The metal pistol made by Solid Concepts, a 3-D printing service based in Austin, Texas, represents a working 3-D–printed version of the famed 1911 pistol originally designed by John Browning. Solid Concepts created almost all parts of the classic gun through direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), an industrial 3-D printing process used to make metal parts in aerospace manufacturing and for surgical implants. (The gun's springs were made separately.)

"When we decided to go ahead and make this gun, we weren't trying to figure out a cheaper, easier, better way to make a gun," said Phillip Conner, DMLS project manager, in a video. "That wasn't the point at all. What we were trying to do is dispel the commonly held notion that DMLS parts are not strong enough or accurate enough for real-world applications."

The 3-D–printed pistol proved both sturdy and accurate during mounted and handheld firing tests showcased in a video posted on 6 November. Solid Concepts says it can 3-D print unique gun parts for any "qualifying customer" in five days—a service made legally possible by the fact that the company holds a Federal Firearms License.

But the 3-D–printed weapon that Solid Concepts built can't be replicated by any DIY gunsmith attempting to do so with a cheaper variety of 3-D printer costing less than $10,000—industry-grade DMLS machines cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's an important point that Solid Concepts emphasized at the very beginning of its blog post about its achievement.

"The industrial printer we used costs more than my college tuition (and I went to a private university) and the engineers who run our machines are top of the line; they are experts who know what they’re doing and understand 3-D Printing better than anyone in this business," said Alyssa Parkinson, a spokesperson for Solid Concepts, in a blog post.

Solid Concepts

In other words, the Solid Concepts gun still requires expensive, industrial-grade equipment that most DIY enthusiasts or homeowners can't afford. That makes the metal gun very different from the plastic guns of Defense Distributed, a Texas group that has developed an open-source design for guns intended for manufacture using home 3-D printers.

Defense Distributed's plastic guns haven't proven durable enough to survive more than a few shots. But the group's focus on plastic firearms produced by cheaper varieties of 3-D printers has raised fears that 3-D printers and open-source gun blueprints could theoretically allow anyone to make a gun at home—either legally or illegally.

Such fears have already driven lawmakers to propose laws that would restrict the manufacture of 3-D–printed plastic guns. Police in Manchester, UK went so far as to seize a 3-D printer and what they claimed to be 3-D–printed gun parts from a private home last month. (The police quickly backed off their claim after people pointed out that the parts displayed in police photos appeared to be printer parts.)

Photos: Solid Concepts

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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