3D Printers Are A Game-Changer, But Not For the Reasons You Think….
There’s been a bit of buzz about how the advent of 3D Printing might bring down the concept of traditional gun control. While it’s understandable for American publications and audiences to be concerned about the domestic impact of such inventions, I think on the whole the role of 3D printers will have in terms of practical regulations on guns is negligible in the immediate to medium run. In terms of American domestic politics, the only real side effect I could see of ubiquitous 3D printing of fire arms are two fold. 1. The beginning of the end of ballistics related forensics in tracking murder weapons and 2. the potential end of the NRA as it exists. Rather the more interesting impact of 3D Printers will be felt in terms of macroeconomic impacts and global trade.
Reasons why after the jump.
First, let’s discuss the irrelevance of 3D Printers on both the domestic and global availability of fire-arms. Small arms are one of the most ubiquitous items on Earth. Even without 3D printers, gunsmiths in locales as remote as Darra Adam Khel have no problem producing complicated small arms and ammunition which are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable (and in fact probably better constructed) than mass produced weapons from Russian, American and other western factories. In terms of US domestic weapons availability, as my colleague Burt Likko correctly notes, there are already plenty of weapons floating around the American market. Even if gun production were to stop immediately tomorrow, there’s going to be a large stockpile of weapons for decades afterward.
Moreover, the existence of grey and second hand markets in guns where there are substantial loopholes in everything from background checks to sales restrictions also means that from a US domestic stand point, this doesn’t really increase the difficulty of keeping weapons out of the hands of people in general. One might also note that there are something like 1,000 major manufacturers of small arms, and a global stockpile of around a billion floating around. Nor is making simple breach loading smoothbores out of common house hold materials all that difficult.
In short, the existence of the Liberator and higher end siblings such as the plastic rifle demonstrated will not materially change availability of small arms either for US criminals or for dissident groups abroad.
On a practical political level, the people who should be most worried about home-produced weapons are not the 3D printer manufacturers or even potential victims of violence, but rather the small arms manufacturing industry and forensics. The first because the price of 3D printers are falling quite quickly, the variety of materials available is becoming more diverse and because getting “patterns” for any type of small arm is likely to become easier than it is now within two or three generations of more widespread 3D printing adoptation.
The total US fire-arm market is worth about 2.5-3 billion USD a year, with about 60% of those sales coming from actual weapons and the rest coming from ammunition. The trend over the last 2 decades has been steady consolidation in the global small arms market. This in turn has led to somewhat less competition and a standardization of available weapons, particularly long-guns like rifles. Problematically the economic data associated with a lot of analysis is based on incomplete or second, even third order metrics. That said, the US has steadily decreased the number of factories and firms producing both fire arms and ammunition since the 1990s and this trend seems set to continue.
Why is this important?
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a powerful interest group lobby within the US political arena. They have been crucial in resisting efforts to restrict access to firearms of any sort. Their formidable influence is in part due to the high degree of support they receive from large manufacturers like Colt, Remington et. al. While it’s likely that they’d retain some influence (so long as ammunition manufacturers continued their support), the widespread adoption of 3D printed weapons would eat into the interests of their most important allies and members. In turn it’s possible that the NRA may lose influence as more potential customers choose to download blue prints online for free rather than go through the trouble of buying a brand new gun of metal and other parts.
Also worthy of note is that disposal of plastic printed weapons is somewhat easier and novel than those of manufactured weapons so common today. The difficulties associated with melting back down an object made of plastic in a 3D printer is going to be easier than disposing of a metal weapon. While murder weapon disposal is hardly a new concept, the ability to make weapons that are comparably lethal to traditional guns without their drawbacks in disposal or even detection (e.g. metal detectors) seem to add a nightmare element of traceability.
Finally to the grand, overall point I wanted to make.
There is always a tendency for discussions to be focused on what the impact of technology might be on the current discussion de jure rather than the larger picture of what disruptive impacts it’ll have. The 3D Printer seems to be destined to be one of those technologies.
We’ve had a fair number of discussions about the morality and utility associated with sourcing low-skill industrial jobs out of the US. I generally take the tack that it’s unhelpful to label everything in the developing world a “sweat shop” and to make sweeping statements about how sweatshops are a broader moral good, but I am in agreement that industrialization does provide a development outlet that wouldn’t otherwise exist. (Hence I am in general in favor of methods that help both harness low cost, low-skill labor, while making sure we meet certain bare minimum obligations like non-exploitative relationships between employers and employees…but more on that some other time.)
Of course, what happens when 3D printers become sufficiently ubiquitous and flexible to the point where we begin to need less of this low-skill labor?
As more materials and complexity become possible with 3D printing technology (and other individual scale production technology), the long term end game is likely to be a situation where most middle-class American households can meet a substantial number of their basic needs not by buying finished products, but by downloading patterns of one sort or another and simply using physical stores as a means of stocking up on raw materials. We’re not talking about complexity or scale at the level of Diamond Age or 24th century Star Trek replicators, nor are we talking a post-scarcity economy like those two settings. But it is a situation where we start seeing an even more substantial bifurcation of value between intellectual property and material property.
Why should this be a concern?
Broadly speaking my arguments (which I hope to expand upon in a later post) come in three flavors:
1. There is already a trend toward intellectual property regime and standards based trade blocs developing.
A substantial amount of industry has actually stopped sourcing to the cheapest labor source (usually in Southeast Asia) and instead have begun to move their operations back into North America as a result of fears over IP theft. This has in turn helped spur economies like Mexico’s, which have synchronized their IP regimes with US standards (as part of NAFTA) and taken on sourcing tasks that would have otherwise gone to China or India. A substantial portion of interests b the TPP participants (and a comparable Transatlantic agreement) is driven by the need and desire to harmonize standards for patent protection to accounting standards, with a goal toward creating a coherent bloc of compliance standards.
2. Large-scale availability of individual scale automated fabrication is likely to exacerbate the trade blocs developing re: point 1.
As concerns over everything from IP protection to cyber security start driving trade policy, there’s a strong likelihood that restrictions on the export of certain technologies and conflicts over compliance to certain standards will become the de facto battleground for trade conflicts in the coming years. The reason is simple: money. Once selling trinkets becomes less profitable, the money will be in microtransactions to buy the rights to self-make a certain trinket.
3. Economies that have relied on low-skill, low-cost labor are likely to face substantial barriers to development as a result.
As much as persistent poverty is an issue, the likelihood is that this will become an even greater problem as low-skill, low-cost labor stops becoming a competitive trade advantage. I’m still working out how this might come to pass, but I think it’s likely that the advancements in affordability and complexity of 3D printing will outstrip the ability of developing economies to build up a sufficient economic base before low-skill labor stops being an asset… This last point is the game-changer and the implications somewhat trouble me. More on this later.