Print Me A Revolution

February 15th, 2013   Submitted by Wendy McElroy

3D3D printers manufacture three-dimensional products by laying down a series of thin plastic or metal in one layer at a time. The 3D printing technology is stunning in its potential to empower individuals. Unfortunately the state knows its power as well. The race is on.

Whose Hand Will be on the Power?

On February 1st, Ars Technica ran the headline, “Robohand: How cheap 3D printers built a replacement hand for a five-year old boy.” Two men – one in Washington State and the other in South Africa – used open source software to design a series of mechanical hands for a boy whose family could not afford a commercial prosthetic. The men published the design as a digital file to be used by 3D printers in order to benefit others in need.

As generations of 3D printers improve in quality and decrease in cost, average people will become private manufacturers who fill their own needs. One need might well be a gun, which could make gun control all but impossible to enforce efficiently. Indeed, a group called Defense Distributed have already “printed” a plastic high capacity ammunition magazine (pictured here) – the sort the government is threatening to ban; the group claims to have successfully fired at least 86 rounds through it.

President Obama is noticing. In his recent State of the Union address, he declared, “Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio…where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” (Several tech commentators have noted that Youngstown is almost unknown to pioneers of the technology.) Meanwhile the Department of Defense has shelled out $30 million to promote 3D printing and the sum is being matched by a group that includes crony-capitalist corporations such as Boeing.

Nothing could be more disastrous to the technology than being championed by government promoting the technology, especially in league with crony corporations.

One Peril of Government Championship

Government support always means government control. Thus far 3D printing has been closely associated with either free or open source software; in other words, with software that is freely available or provided with minimal terms attached. For example, the longstanding and successful RepRap project is attempting to produce and refine 3D printers that can manufacture most of their own components. This means the machines could ‘breed’ themselves for domestic use throughout the world. RepRap employs open design – that is publicly shared information – which draws on both open source software and hardware. The project releases its designs under a free license that allows users to share and modify the software. One of RepRap’s printers reportedly sells for $1,000.

Open software and hardware are the political opposite of copyright and patents. They rip open the world of ideas and of possibilities for individuals. Obama and his Intellectual Property (IP) Czar have strenuously sought to expand draconian IP policies, often to the benefit of ‘supportive’ industries such as the large music and movie producers. Open design is a direct challenge to cronies. Consider the earlier example of mechanical hands being printed for a fraction of what they would cost from big medical firms. Every printed prosthetic represents a loss of income to medical corporations. Every one is a threat to the relevance of their patents. In order to protect monopoly profits, crony-corporations will attempt to co-opt and to use the burgeoning technology to their own advantage through IP enforced by the raw muscle of the state. Medical corporations could care less if children cannot afford prosthetic hands; they want a spiked-up profit off every medical device sold.

(The backlash by Big Pharma will be intense if a report from Glasgow University chemist Lee Cronin is accurate. On July 26, 2012, the Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence news site announced, “The ‘chemputer’ that could print out any drug.” In the article, Cronin claimed to be able to turn printers into chemistry sets. The article stated, “Nearly all drugs are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as readily available agents such as vegetable oils and paraffin.” Cronin added, “With a printer it should be possible that with a relatively small number of inks you can make any organic molecule.” Of course, the cry against this machine will come also from the drug warriors in law enforcement. NOTE: this discussion may be irrelevant as erudite readers have expressed skeptism about chemputers.)

Like crony corporations, government could not care less about one-handed children or the immense benefits of downloadable drugs. Obama will protect IP. Remember it was in the name of a trivial IP offense that government officials drove Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz to suicide through their life-destroying persecution. Arguably, his acts was not even a violation but Swartz had vociferously opposed some of government’s key moves to control the Internet. For example, he campaigned effectively against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that would have allowed government to close down internet sites upon the mere accusation of violating IP. Upon SOPA’s demise, Swartz exclaimed, “We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom.” Government would value highly an expanded ability to rein in or to destroy as many Swartzs as possible.

Expect money to be thrown at people and projects that can be controlled by government and corporations. The money will be portrayed as beneficent and needed to promote technology that could ‘save’ the economy; the opposite is true. The IP Czar will argue for protecting business; she will advocate copyrighted software and patented hardware into which back doors for government access can be installed. Expect to hear frightening tales of how criminals and the psychotic will print AK47s. Homeland Security and the DoD will chime in with calls for national security.

If Obama is successful, then the 3D development will stagger and be burdened by furthering the goals of the state, not of the individual. The most damnable thing is that the printers could well become the greatest economic boom since personal computers and the internet. But government eats whole whatever wealth comes its way.


Murray Rothbard spoke frequently of the never-ending battle between authority and liberty, between the state and the individual. Technology such as 3D printing is the single brightest hope for individual freedom and prosperity in a dismally political world. The research and development is widespread enough so that the printing cannot be stopped on a global basis. Whether it grinds to a halt in America depends on individuals making themselves the heroes of their own future.

28 Responses to “Print Me A Revolution”

  1. ShawnNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent article, Wendy. As I’ve been learning more and more about 3D printer technology, I’ve come to the exact same conclusions. Here’s hoping liberty wins…

  2. I think liberty has a real chance in this race, Shawn, but I am more optimistic about 3D printing globally than I am about the technology in America. The DoD is already talking about “printing” planes etc. in conflict areas. Interesting that the private sector is creating mechanical prosthetics and looking forward to shipping 3Ds to the moon where they can replicate by using indigenous metals. The DoD is thinking of better ways to kill and control.

  3. A.H.No Gravatar says:

    How do you think the government will attempt to control this technology? Will they try to restrict sales of the computer chips that are used in the RepRap? Will they try to control the sale of the raw feedstock for 3D printers? Will they try to prohibit or license ownership of such devices, as Xerox machines were banned in Communist countries? Or will large corporations patent the technology, and then bring patent lawsuits against those making 3D printers, or those making patented products with 3D printers? How do we keep 3D printing free?

    • nedludNo Gravatar says:


      Your answer is, all of the above. Plus some you haven’t thought of.

      I was an ‘organic’ farmer who life was mangled by government ORGANIC. In every possible instance, bureaucracy finds ways to intervene and to destroy people’s inspirational labor and love and to claim it (that person’s love and labor) for themselves. This is what was done to me.

      Please do not buy corporate, government ORGANIC. This means all of the -uhhh- registered and approved and certified labels, and especially I despise Organic Valley and its ceo, George Siemon.

      just another broken dis-spirited small family farmer, who needs ’em?

      • Nedlud: I live in a farm community and I see the same sort of thing happening in my area. It is heartbreaking because those being persecuted are decent, hard-working people; those flexing muscle are self-important bureaucrats who sometimes enjoy the devastation they are causing.

        I agree with your answer to AH — “yes. The government will do all of the above.” But I think the government in tandem with crony corporations will favor patent and copyright law/cases because they have been relatively successful in the past, they are familiar with the procedures and the procedures are weighted so heavily in their favor. I think patents and copyrights are already obsolete and it is no longer possible to restrain ideas. However, individuals are. And the restraint of individuals will be attempted as a way to intimidate others. The next most likely strategy is to try to “buy” the emerging industry by throwing state money and prestige at it along with the law.

  4. MarkNo Gravatar says:

    Some good observations.

    Consider revisiting the phrase “could care less”. The correct expression is “couldn’t care less”. “Could care less” implies they actually care some.

    — /\/\

  5. gdpNo Gravatar says:

    Excellent article, Wendy!

    3D printing has the potential to drive the cost of any item to near-zero: basically, just raw feedstock materials plus the energy to run the printer. It has the potential to completely decentralize manufacturing, and make the “Industrial Revolution” look like a mild blip in history by comparison. As you say, Wendy, one can expect “Crony Capitalists” to fight the development of “unlicensed” and “non-DRM-enabled” 3D printers and printer control and object-description software tooth and nail.

    It also makes “unskilled labor” essentially irrelevant to “means of production,” which makes Marx’s “Analysis of History and Capitalism” essentially irrelevant. It will also relegate “unskilled labor” to “service jobs,” while putting millions of manufacturing laborers out of work — which will likewise cause a major social upheaval that will make the “Luddite” reaction to automated looms look like a blip by comparison. So one may also expect “Organized Labor” to fight the development of 3D printer technology tooth and nail.

    The “chemputer” idea is fascinating, and has enormous potential. I worry about reactions between “inks” having sufficient “reaction specificity:” If the chemical reactions between the “inks” are not sufficiently specific (and in chemistry, one cannot do just one thing — _no_ chemical reaction is 100% specific!), the “chemputer” has the potential to produce unintended side-products that in a food or drug could lead to toxic or fatal side-effects — which will of course cause the FDA Thugs and their international equivalents to step in and assert their “Regulatory Authority” over such devices. (Many drug side-effects are not caused by the drug itself, but rather by impurities and side-products that cannot be 100% removed from the final product. (Likewise to reaction specificity, no filtering process can be 100% effective.) During the 1980s, impurities introduced during the manufacture of (IIRC) MDMA had the unitended side-effect of inducing Parkinson’s-like symptoms in some users.)

    In biology, unintended side-reactions are suppressed by using enzymes to catalytically control which reaction goes at the highest rate. (Enzymes are protein-based reaction catalysts of often exquisite specificity — still not 100%, but nevertheless better than anything humans currently know how to design.) So it is possible that the “chemputer” could be made sufficiently specific by incorporating enzyme synthesis into the set of “inks.”

    Progress is being made toward table-top protein synthesis, but the technology still falls far short of what biological cells can do, nor do we yet know how to design enzymes “ab initio.” Indeed, the current most effective means for producing “designer” enzymes is to perform either “simulated evolution” or “directed evolution” experiments in the laboratory, which allow one to “evolve” an enzyme that enhances the rate of some desired reaction, despite the fact that we remain absolutely clueless about _how_ it enhances said reaction rate! So “evolutionary design” is possible, but places one in the uncomfortable position of not understanding how the product works — a position SF author Karl Schroeder calls the “Technological Optimum,” rather than Vernor Vinge’s “Singularity.”

    Both Schroeder’s novel “Permanence” and SF author Neal Stephenson’s novel “The Diamond Age” deal with repressive regimes that use “Intellectual Property Law” plus ruthless enforcement by the State to control what may and may not be manufactured by “Home Fabricators,” and to enable “Crony Capitalists” to extort “rental payments” from every use of a Home Fabricator. Stephenson in particular discusses a battle between the State and “Open Source” activists (the latter of course labeled “terrorists” by the State/Corporate axis) who believe that fabrication devices and software ought to be unencumbered by DRM.

    These developments in “home Fabrication” are fascinating, and I follow them with interest — but the downside if State Thugs manage to impose “Universal DRM” on such devices is truly frightening. The upside is that “Information wants to be Free” — and once the “genie is out of the bottle” (design and software for “Open Source” fabricators and products), it will be virtually impossible to put it back into the bottle.

  6. MarkNo Gravatar says:

    One might want to consider that revolutionary items such as the printing press and the internet have actually flourished. Besides, the Genie is out of the bottle.

  7. TonyNo Gravatar says:

    This is where I think we win. Someone in the world will allow their citizens to own 3D printers. Their country will become so free and wealthy everyone will want what they have. Sure the powers that be will try to paint them as evil socialists. There will be little arguing with free. Most will be able to see the argument for what it is.

    The poor could easily be our saving grace. They won’t really care what you call them. They will just want something to call their own. It will be impossible to argue with their numbers. It will likely be the poor that lead the charge.

  8. RupeNo Gravatar says:

    The first thing that a 3d printer must have the software etc for is to print copies of itself. That way, even if one 3d printer escapes govt control it can print ten of itself, each of which prints ten and in no time there will be millions.

  9. MAMNo Gravatar says:

    DA Kickstarter to get one of these things?

  10. I thought this breaking news item would be of interest: “Printable Ammo Clip Skirts New Proposed Gun Laws? lip-skirts-new-proposed-gun-laws?sdsrc=popbyskid

  11. cb750No Gravatar says:

    Hmm maybe someone can start 3d printing counterfeit star wars action figures.

    • Brad RNo Gravatar says:

      Oh, no. You had to mention that. Now the entertainment industry is going to get involved, trying to ban 3D printers. :-/

  12. gdpNo Gravatar says:

    Peripherally related topic — A reporter from “Marketplace” interviews a reporter from “Quartz” RE: a future where nearly all manufacturing is done by robots (instead of human laborers who are paid to work like robots*): ery-job

    The writer from “Quartz” quotes MIT Center for Digital Business director Erik Brynjolfsson as saying “offshoring is just a way-station on the road to automation.”

    A commenter to the article quotes Warren G. Bennis as saying: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”

    * Ironically, the word “robot” is derived from a czech word meaning “serf or drudge laborer.”

  13. Rob NobleNo Gravatar says:

    IMO they can try but fail. It’s too late…..THE CAT IS OUT OF THE BAG. While what 3D printing is ‘amazing’ the concept is not that difficult to understand. By now anyone who reads a 3D article knows how it works. They may not know how to build one……but far too many people do. There is no stopping it just a bunch of stupid laws and stepping stones. I’d say get a 3D printer ASAP and learn as much as you can NOW. Get CAD training etc. The gov’t is way behind the curve on this subject. And as always…..DEATH TO THE ELITE!

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Rob: I hope you are correct. I half believe you are. One additional factor in freedom’s favor is how poorly most government officials understand technology. I am far, far from tech savvy but even I wince when I read the ruling of judges on Internet cases. This means they rule incorrectly, of course, but it also means they have no clue what they are dealing with…and that could be an advantage Is it the latent Objectivist in me that still believes competence will eventually overcome and outstrip control?

      • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

        Yes, government workers tend to be less competent than private sector folks, but not so much so that one can discount the huge advantage government thugs have over any individual. They are PAID to harrass you. They have cops, judges, and lawyers with nothing better to do than stamp out any hint of freedom as a potential threat to government power. They have the law on theilr side, so they can shoot you and get away with it. Remember Randy Weaver’s family and the Waco murders of even innocent kids. I guess Lord Acton had it right. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

        • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

          Nice to see you Fritz. Believe me, I do not discount the tremendous advantage wielded by government officials, who use people’s own money to oppress them. And few things have shocked me as much as the Randy Weaver outrage because it was the first time I fully realized the lethal length to which the state was now willing to go to quash disobedience and dissent. I think I date my expectation that America would become a police state back to that one day.

          The difference between 3D printing technology and Randy Weaver, however, is that the state could kill Weaver along with his wife and son because they were physical targets in a centralized place. The technology is an idea or an organization of ideas that have gone viral on the Internet. You can destroy individuals — and the state seems to enjoy doing so — but you cannot destroy an idea that has already spread widely. It is decentralized, as are the people in whom the idea lives.

          The people commenting here who point out the impossibility of stopping 3D technology may well be correct…I think they are, I hope they are. But I do not discount for one second the damage that can be done to individuals by the state in its attempt to shut down this threat. I am not cavalier enough to go with the statement, “We’ve already won!” I’d like the winners to stay alive and out of prison.

          • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

            We basically agree. I see the USA as having been a police state all my life and probably going back much further than that. I remember after reading in Claire Wolfe’s The State vs. the People that she still did not consider the USA a police state, being amazed. Her work was brilliant, but she refused to see the obvious.
            As for 3d printing being a decentralized idea that would be impossible to stop, I too hope so. But I think back to Orwell’s 1984 where the populace thought what it was told to think and look at the controlled mass media. I fear the coming control of the internet will eliminate on a practical basis any use of 3d printing or other info to help the cause of freedom. Our government uses disinformation quite well. Most people seem to have lost the ability to think critically. That is why I enjoy your writings and the responses to them. There are still a few folks who are not 9 to 5 robots at heart! But I am also saddened that otherwise intelligent people tell me that “No intelligent person believes that anarchy is possible”. I guess it all comes back to apriori assumptions. I assume that individual liberty is a main priority for humans. But observation tells me that most people sell out their and my freedom for booze and video games. I guess that is why I get to feeling so hopeless. Keep writing Wendy. Your articles are a beacon of light to this old man.

  14. KratoklastesNo Gravatar says:

    3D printing is out of the bottle already: concerns over the possibility of .gov trying to interfere with the inputs (e.g., controlling the sale of the required microprocessors) are, to my mind, overblown given that they already try to do that with, say, weed, and yet anybody who wants to can buy the highest-quality weed in existence, for a fraction of what it cost when the War on [Some] Drugs began.

    The next important step will be the rise of home-fabs for chemical and biological materials (think “BioCurious meets BioBricks”). A lot of hackerspaces already HAVE [bio]chemistry spaces, and they can already do things that make you go “Wow”.

    The writer mentioned “The Diamond Age” (Stephenson’s book). I like Stephenson’s stuff (Cryptonomicon was a masterpiece), but The Diamond Age left me cold – for the simple reason that the universe is designed in such a way that encryption works.

    That in turn means that there are ways of communicating that .gov can not stop; that in turn means that organisation at a micro level is always possible (infiltration becomes an issue); that in turn means that hackerspaces will always exist. And I am prepared to bet that the first widely-available self-replicating universal assembler will be created in a hackerspace.

    The greater the ease of communication, the worse life gets for tyranny. And since some guys just discovered that ‘spooky action at a distance’ between quantum-entangled particles occurs at speeds AT LEAST 4 orders of magnitude faster than the speed of light (and possibly ACTUALLY instantaneously), it is only a matter of time before we figure out how to use that phenomenon to speedup our communications even more.

    Imagine if Tom Paine had been able to ship “Common Sense” or “The Rights of Man” around the globe instantly at zero cost; more people would have been influenced.

    Had you told a far-sighted person like Ben Franklin that one day documents could be replicated and transmitted halfway round the world instantly (and without error), he would have thought you were daft.

    And now we can transmit the required specs for 3D objects in the same manner: the parts that can be turned into digit-streams, will be – it’s already the case that someone who doesn’t own a 3D printer can send their design file to Thingiverse, and get the resultant product in the mail.

    You can get things printed in metal and ceramic already – and materials science will give us more and better ceramics, and the ability to print with aerogel and other stuff.

    And get this: RecycleBot and FilaBot – machines that turn ‘garbage’ HDPE and other plastic packaging into feedstock for 3D printers – are almost market-ready: landfill just became a resource!

    The future is bright as a button, so long as the megalomaniac parasites who try to live at our expense can be prevented – at all costs, up to and including direct violence – from WEAPONISING nanotech.

    • Wendy McElroyNo Gravatar says:

      Hi there Kratoklastes: I share your views. Technology — especially open source tech — will be the salvation of man and freedom. But only IF the state can be blocked from using force against the individuals who engender open tech and only IF the state can be blocked from co-opting it as a weapon against man and freedom. I differ with you on emphasis. I think you assume (much more than I do) that the battle has been more or less won by technology. I hope you are correct but I do not assume there is a clear winner here yet. BTW, I don’t mean to offend you by being presumptious in “knowing” what you believe. That is just my impression from your posts.

      Thanks for the posts, BTW. I directed my husband to them because he is very active in the open source community.

  15. KratoklastesNo Gravatar says:

    Oh, and while I was babbling about open-source DIY SynthBio, I ought to have mentioned iGEM (but anyone who foudn the BioBricks site would have found iGEM by default) and OpenWetWare. has a decent overview of a lot of the (non-hackerspace) relevant stuff that’s going on, but hackerspaces are probably where more exciting stuff will happen – in part because the security protocols will not have to be passed in front of the rick-management (read: scared-of-litigation) bureaucracy-monkeys that dminate universities. As such the security protocols will do what is necessary (e.g., prevent experimenters from being turned into superheroes through exposure to radiation) but will ignore what isn’t (vast reams of paperwork to cover the asses of the aforementioned office-monkeys).