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In Crimes To Come by Thomas Easton
Review by Thomas Easton
Date: 21 September 2008

Links: Dr. Easton's Emerging Technologies course /

Scientist, futurist and science fiction author Thomas Easton joins us with a look at the ways that 3D printer technology might be used in the hands of the criminal element in a chapter from his upcoming book: The 3D Printing Revolution. Not content to let them figure it out for themselves, the good professor felt they could use a nudge in the right direction ... and offers the rest of us an early warning too. 3D printing is an reality that anyone can take advantage of by sending your designs off to a specialty house today, and perhaps your desktop tomorrow.

In Crimes to Come

A technology is now moving from industry to the home with the potential to change the way we live at a very fundamental level. It will change the ways businesses operate and the trust we have in our senses. It will change local, national, and global economies. It will even change the crimes we must be wary of and challenge law enforcement agencies in ways they are not prepared for.

The last time a technology with such drastic effects appeared was in the 1970s, when computers were huge, expensive, and used only by large organizations. But that was when the first primitive personal computers (PCs) appeared. At the time the PC was of interest mainly to hobbyists. But within twenty years, people were beginning to work, play, shop, socialize, and even steal online. Today e-commerce is a major sector of the economy, telework is a serious alternative for millions of workers, online gaming is a major industry, we worry about scamming, phishing, and identity theft, and some people debate the validity of online or virtual relationships.

This newest disruptive technology is 3D printing, also known as rapid prototyping and instant manufacturing. It is based on the idea that any three-dimensional object can be viewed as a stack of two-dimensional slices. A 3D printer (also known as a "fabber," short for fabricator) prints the slices, one on top of another, until it produces (or "fabs") the whole object. For "ink" or raw material, it uses powders (similar to copier toner) or liquid plastics or even pastes. It has a technique to solidify the ink as each layer is laid down. If there is internal structure—hollow spaces, pieces of different colors or consistency—that is all faithfully reproduced.

Until 2007, 3D printers were industrial equipment and priced accordingly. But now they are available for less than $5,000, which puts them within reach of home users. At the moment, their capabilities are limited--much as those of the PC were in the mid-70s--but that is going to change rapidly.


3D printing technology has been in use in industry for nearly twenty years. Z-Corporation's machines use the powder method; the powder layers are solidified when a form of ink-jet printer with four print heads deposits a thin layer of binder material (in three colors and clear). The printed items must be treated with a liquid "infiltrant" that hardens the material enough to support handling. The items are not, however, sturdy enough to install in products intended for sale and use. They are prototypes, demonstration models, and the originals around which molds can be formed for making plastic, metal, and ceramic items for actual use. These uses are valuable enough to make the company a growing concern.

Stratasys machines use a different method -- Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). In a heated chamber, two moving heads extrude thin streams of melted plastic (in several colors) to form each layer of an object being printed. The use of melted plastic gives the items much greater solidity.

The Zprinter 450 was touted as a price breakthrough when it came out in 2007 -- and it sells for a bit less than $40,000. The smaller Zprinter 310, which uses only one color of binder, costs about $25,000. Stratasys's FDM200mc sells in the same range. Stratasys's Dimension line starts at under $19,000 and goes up to $33,000. Such prices don't sound like much of a breakthrough until we note that high-end rapid-prototyping machines can cost as much as $500,000.

Taking 3D-Printing Home

. When rapid prototyping or 3D printing reaches the home market, it will give people the power to make a great many things they now have to pay for. Even more intriguingly, because it prints things, not just pictures, it can print its own parts. The first 3D printer can then become two, which quickly become four, and so on. Costs can become extraordinarily low, and the means of production can spread quickly throughout society. Since some users will tinker with their machines to improve them, the best improvements will spread fastest, in a process akin to Darwinian natural selection.

This is the basic idea behind the RepRap project (, whose founder, Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath, says "the replicating rapid prototyping machine will allow the revolutionary ownership, by the proletariat, of the means of production. But it will do so without all that messy and dangerous revolution stuff, and even without all that messy and dangerous industrial stuff. Therefore I have decided to call this process Darwinian Marxism."

The RepRap project makes available to all who would like to build their own 3D printer parts lists (the parts should cost less than $600) and instructions for building and programming the machine. And there's no charge. The project's motto is "wealth without money," and it begins with the project itself. For future users, the motto means they will be able to satisfy a great many needs and desires without worrying about whether they can afford to pay for them.

Unfortunately, the RepRap machines are not yet ready to take home. For that we must look to two other 3D printer projects, Fab@Home and Desktop Factory.

In 2006, Hod Lipson of Cornell University launched the Fab@Home project with PhD student Evan Malone. By January 2007, they were able to announce that their "Freeform" fabber -- about the size of a microwave oven -- could be assembled for about $2400. The parts list, with a list of suppliers, instructions on how to build and operate it, and all the necessary software are available -- for free -- from their website ( As with the RepRap machine, the idea is that people should feel free to modify and -- hopefully -- improve the machine. Also like the RepRap machine, it uses a version of Fused Deposition Modelling, but in addition to plastic, it can print using PlayDoh, cheese, silicone caulk, plaster, chocolate, cake frosting, metal-impregnated plastics (for printing wires), and other soft substances that will harden quickly.

By the summer of 2007, it was already possible to buy fully assembled versions of the Fab@Home fabber for about $3,600. This is a great deal cheaper than any of the industrial machines, and though performance is not as good as with the industrial machines (the Fab@Home fabber is slower, and the surfaces of the objects it makes are not as smooth), with its ability to use many different materials, it has an astonishing versatility. It will only improve over time. Eventually… Well, Evan Malone has already built a version of the machine that uses a rack of syringes and can make things out of several materials at the same time. He has used it to make a working battery, and his ultimate goal is to use his fabber to make a complete, working robot. If it can do that, of course, it can probably make another fabber, just as the RepRap folks intend.

Idealab was started in 1996 "to create and operate pioneering technology companies." In 2004, it gave birth to Desktop Factory (, whose goal "is to one day make 3D printing as common in offices, factories, schools and homes as laser printers are today. Just as desktop publishing exploded as prices dropped and laser printers became ubiquitous, so too will new uses for 3D printing emerge as devices become inexpensive and widely available."

The Desktop Factory 125ci 3D printer easily fits on a desktop and weighs less than 90 lbs. It can make things up to 5 inches on a side with layers a hundredth of an inch thick, slightly thicker than those laid down by the industrial machines. Speed of printing is comparable to that of the industrial machines. For raw material, it uses a proprietary plastic powder that can be fused by light from a relatively inexpensive halogen bulb to make things sturdy "enough to throw across a conference table."

It seems safe to say that when 3D printers begin to penetrate the consumer market, some people will be quick to think of ways to misuse them. Trying to anticipate those misuses is therefore worthwhile for at least three reasons. First, thinking up new forms of mischief is fun (though responsible folks do not go beyond that!). Second, only by anticipating misbehavior can one hope to prevent it. And third, if you can think of a likely misbehavior and a workable countermeasure, you probably have a business plan, or at least a product. In the best case, you have a path to wealth.

To begin with the fun, fun is meant to be shared. I therefore posted a question on LinkedIn, a popular professional networking site that gives members access (links, of course) to friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends. At the third remove, I can reach over two million people! It therefore seemed reasonable to see what they had to offer by asking them to think of crimes that might someday be enabled or facilitated by 3D printing, or that might take new forms.

The responses varied. Some people thought mostly in terms of intellectual property (copyright and trademark) infringement, forgery, counterfeiting art and trade goods, and the black market. But some had a downright frightening sense of future possibilities. For instance, Carlos Frohlich, an IT specialist in London, suggested that terrorists will be able to use 3D printers to make replacement parts for airplanes, trains, and other transportation systems that look genuine but are made of weak material or are designed to break down in use. The point would be to promote chaos. Such parts could be slipped into the spare parts bins wherever planes and trains are serviced. When they were used, they would soon fail. I leave the results of that to your imagination.

It is possible to do this without 3D printers, of course, but it is logistically more difficult. Indeed, there will remain logistical difficulties, for such sabotage still requires some way to get the fake parts into the system at the factory, during shipping, or in the spare-parts department at the airport or terminal. In the United States, it is the job of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) to worry about such problems. If some such thing actually happens--or if the TSA just deems the risk real--we will surely see enhanced security along the parts supply line.

Simon Tyler, a Senior Support Systems Engineer in Canada, suggested that "if the printer was capable of assembling small devices, even little robots, a criminal could remotely hack the printer inside your house, assemble a robot and use it to commit a crime remotely, such as steal something (or just unlock the door)." The idea sounds like something from a bad sci-fi movie, but in fact some of the optimists in the field, such as Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, and Hod Lipson of Cornell University and Fab@Home, have described the ultimate dream for 3D printers as being able to print a robot, complete with circuitry, able to walk out of the printer. If that ever happens, Simon is spot on. Again, the issue is one of security. Today people set up wireless routers and neglect to use available security (password and encryption) protocols despite numerous warnings. Similar security protocols will be needed for 3D printers, particularly if they are accessible through networks. Additional security will be gained if they are turned off when not in use.

There are other security-related potential problems as well. For instance, once 3D printers are commonplace, they will surely be installed in public schools. Teachers will use them for making items to use in class, and students will be using them in projects. However, if students have access, there will surely be cases where students use them inappropriately, perhaps to print out knives or toy guns (just as forbidden as real ones in many schools). Printer access should be controlled by usernames and passwords, but schools may also need a way to monitor and report, in real time, what the printers are doing. I imagine a surveillance camera aimed at the printer's work area, and a screen in the principal's office. Someone, of course, will need to keep an eye on the screen.

If 3D printers can be shrunk down in size enough to fit in a briefcase, it may be only a matter of time before someone carries one onto a plane and--after passing through security without triggering any alarms--uses it to print out a weapon. If the TSA sees this as a problem, expect printers to be banned as carry-on luggage. If printable robots become possible, expect the printers to be banned as checked luggage too--imagine the trouble a robot (or several robots) could cause in the cargo hold!

Phil Lauro, an IT manager with a background in security, suggested concealing information in printer files. Since there are software tools for finding such concealed or steganographic content in photo, audio, and video files, it will surely not be long before the tools are adapted for printer files. But it should also be possible to conceal information inside an object. Think of an opaque plastic bottle or a child's squeeze toy with a secret message printed on the inside surface, either in plain text or in code. In a solid object such as a razor handle or the cap of a toothpaste tube, the message might be printed on the layers of material. To read the message, slice the object with something like a deli's salami slicer; each slice could be a whole page of text. James Bond would have loved this! But it's not just for spy fiction. Z Corporation's machines, which use powder and three colors of binder, would be perfect to do this. In fact, secret agents and industrial spies could already be doing it, and if Homeland Security, the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA haven't thought of this already, they aren't doing their jobs. Detection would require something like a CAT scanner.

Microsoft is developing Photosynth (, software that "takes a large collection of photos of a place or an object, analyzes them for similarities, and displays them in a reconstructed three-dimensional space." The purpose is to create city scenes or museum spaces (for instance) that one can navigate on screen. To do this successfully, the software must be able to construct 3D images of such things as buildings. But if it can do that, it can also construct 3D images of smaller items. The result may not be as accurate as an actual 3D scan but it could be accurate enough for some purposes, such as capturing an image of a key good enough to feed to a 3D printer for duplication. The printer, of course, would have to be able to use materials such as powdered metal which, when laser-sintered, yields a strong enough product not to break in a lock. Now imagine that someone meets you at the door to your home or office as you are about to unlock the door. They offer you a petition to sign, wave a leaflet at you, or otherwise keep you busy, key in hand, while they surreptitiously snap photos of the key. Photos could also be collected by corrupt TSA agents who, as they do their jobs, require that you put your keys in a tray. Depending on what is on your keyring, this could put your house, office, safe deposit box, and more at risk. Currently, identity thieves offer for sale lists of names, addresses, phone numbers, and social security numbers of potential victims. In the future, the lists may include printer files of your keys!

One answer to this threat is to do away with keys in favor of biometrics (on LinkedIn, R. Scott Frothingham, a marketing executive in Washington, DC, wondered whether a 3D printer's resolution might be good enough to replicate fingerprints), RFID locks, and combination locks. A cheaper answer might be a "key-skin," a sponge-rubber cylinder surrounding a key. When pressed against a key-hole, the cylinder compresses, allowing the key to emerge and penetrate the lock. The key itself would never be exposed to a camera. As far as I know, no such product is on the market. If you want to develop it and sell it, don't forget to send me a check, care of the publisher.

3D printers clearly will pose security risks. But rather than feel paranoid, we should realize that there are ways--some of them simple, some of them mere extensions of things we already do--to deal with most of the risks. The same lesson applies to other kinds of misbehavior.

Illegal products

As we saw above, people are not allowed to possess some things in certain situations (weapons at school and on airplanes). There are also some things that people are not allowed to possess at all, though the laws vary from country to country and state to state. In some cases, possession of an item is allowed, but no one is allowed to sell it or buy it. As a result, there is a demand that people will soon realize can be met with the aid of a 3D printer and suitable printer files.

Drug paraphernalia is one example. This includes hash pipes, smoking masks, bongs, marijuana grow kits, roach clips, and items such as hollowed out cosmetic cases or fake pagers used to conceal illegal drugs. Both sale and possession are outlawed in the United States. But many of these items will lend themselves easily to 3D printing, even in the earliest days of the technology.

Some illegal weapons, such as nunchucks, and illegal accessories for guns, such as over-sized ammo clips and silencers, could also be 3D printed. Lock-picking tools could join the list, as could components for a still. Sex toys are also restricted in some states.

Intellectual Property

Another major area of concern is intellectual property. The PC made it possible to copy software, image, text, audio, and game files easily and quickly. When the Internet came along, those copies could be as easily distributed to thousands of people who would rather not pay the prices for legitimate copies marketed by the owners or licensees of the copyrights for the originals.

Intellectual property defense is important to those who own copyrights, patents, and trademarks because a great deal of money is at stake. When illicit copies of music, software, and movies are made or given away, sales are lost. This is a relatively straightforward notion and it takes no great leap of imagination to see that it must apply when 3D printing becomes commonplace. People will then have the ability to make copies of copyrighted, patented, and trademarked things, as well as files, and they will use that ability. They may do so for their own purposes, giving a child as many Barbie dolls as she wishes, for instance. They may scan objects and share the resulting files. They may also sell the files, or even printed copies of the originals.

Many of the objects affected--such as children's toys--may not be that expensive. Interior decoration items--from switch plates to tschotchkes--may not sell huge numbers of copies. Museum replicas--copies of statues, paintings, fossils, ancient jewelry and weapons--can be both expensive and popular. Items of personal decoration--from belt buckles to jewelry--can be quite popular. Replacement parts for appliances and office equipment can be expensive. En masse, such things represent a significant portion of modern commerce. As 3D printing becomes cheaper and more available, counterfeits or "knock-offs" of branded products may proliferate and nations that are now infamous for making knock-offs may prosper, at least until the counterfeiting moves into the home. Either way, there is enough money at stake to warrant concern and motivate defensive efforts.

One of my LinkedIn contacts, New York lawyer Joseph C. Gioconda, notes that counterfeiting of branded products (automotive parts, luxury goods, fashionable clothing, watches, shoes, and electronics, among others) using 3D scanners and CAD/CAM systems is already a problem, though the quality of the materials used in copies may not be up to the same standard as in the originals. The new technology of 3D printing will exacerbate the problem, "forcing brand owners to develop novel methods of construction that cannot be rendered." Given the expected evolution of the technology, there may not be such methods, at least not ones that will work for long, but perhaps there could be an equivalent of digital watermarking, perhaps involving the use of "microtaggants," microscopic, color-coded particles that can be used to identify anything in which they can be mixed or embedded, including the plastic, rubber, adhesive, and even metal of which many products are made. The Microtrace company ( offers its products explicitly as an anti-counterfeit technology. Legitimate items will be made of materials incorporating the microtaggants. Illicit copies will not and will therefore be identifiable. It would also be possible to mix the microtaggants into the raw material sold for use with 3D printers. This could permit identification of the materials-buyer responsible for illicit copies.

However, it seems likely that a future product may well be a grinder capable of turning the plastic of old, broken items into powder or feedstock for reuse. The result could be a jumbled mix of microtaggants that would at least confuse the issue of source. Of course, using such material could be seen as an attempt to circumvent protection measures and thus be by itself an illegal act. It seems reasonable to predict increased employment opportunities for lawyers, as well as efforts to pass legislation to block use of 3D printing to copy branded products.

It seems a reasonable prediction that, as Bryan Lund, a manager at Energizer Battery, put it, public "regard for brand or design intellectual property" will decline and that corporations will incur "greater cost in protecting ideas." On the other hand, he noted, "the upside is that [3D printing] will be the source of a new competitive nature and innovation as bringing this capability to the home will enhance creativity and cottage industries." Similar things have been claimed for the increased access to music (etc.) that upsets the RIAA, and there is some evidence to support the idea. Indeed, the open source software movement is based on the idea that not protecting ideas--releasing them for others to modify and improve--is overall beneficial to society. Companies that develop and give away open source software make their money by selling training, manuals, and consulting and customization services. An important question will be whether there can be an equivalent business model in a world where 3D printing is commonplace.


The essence of fraud is deception for gain, and the PC has come to play a major role in many modern forms of fraud. Can the 3D printer do the same, or even lead to new forms of fraud? The answers are alarming.

It will be many years before 3D printing is good enough to duplicate money, either bills or coins, at a cost less than the face value of the money. Among my LinkedIn contacts, information security specialist Michael Stephen Ruiz was concerned about duplication of stocks, bonds, deeds, and titles, which may be rendered on special grades of paper, with embossed type and ornate seals. Bryan Lund mentioned the possibility of duplicating credit cards; all a fraudster really needs in these days of telecommunications is the card number, but the same concern could extend to identity documents such as passports, driver's licenses, and so on. Document forgers will love the technology!

So will unscrupulous dealers in antiques and collectibles. They may eventually, once the technology improves a bit, be able to scan valuable items and print out duplicates that look and feel authentic. Virginia artist Cortney Skinner suggested that art thieves might create duplicates of items in museums or galleries. Later they might steal the original and leave the duplicate in its place, so that no one is aware the theft even occurred. The perfect defense against this, of course, is for the museum itself to make copies and only put those on display. Then the joke could be on the thieves!

Of course, a thief could also make a copy and offer it as the stolen original. If the copy is good enough, it should pass. And law enforcement could just wink at the offense, for if the truth ever came out, the thief's customers might well arrange a punishment much worse than anything a court would mete out.

Still another kind of fraud follows from current uses of 3D printers to make duplicates of fossils for research, display, and educational purposes. Among the varieties of scientific fraud is the manufacturing of experimental evidence, which may before long come to include the making of entirely fictional "fossils." This could also be done by nonscientists who wish to prove a point such as the creationist claim that humans and dinosaurs walked the Earth at the same time. I can imagine fake fossil footprints, human beside dinosaur, or a fossil dinosaur with human finger bones in its tummy (yes, dinosaur fossils have been found with recent meals still in place), or a dinosaur bone with an embedded stone spearpoint, or a dinosaur coprolite (fossilized dung) with embedded bits of human bone.

I can also imagine fake evidence of alien visitations. Years ago, the National Enquirer asked me to give my opinion of a photo of what they said was a sprig of alien vegetation from a clot of mud on a flying saucer's landing gear. It certainly looked weird enough, but I had to tell them it was only a scrap of Earthly fungus, complete with a scale bar that said it was about a tenth of a millimeter long. A 3D printer could produce a much more convincing bit of alien vegetation, garbage, equipment, or even bones. It could also produce a fossil fairy, complete with wings, to satisfy those who crave proof of the existence of elves and their kin. Or perhaps a dragon or mermaid! The Weekly World News (now defunct) was infamous for its Photoshopped "evidence" of such creatures. Think of what they could have done with a 3D printer!

It will for some time be impossible to match the materials of original and fake in both substance and texture, so such fakes will be fairly easy to spot. But often what goes on display in a museum is no more than a cast of the original fossil, and textbooks show only photos. A fake fossil or bit of alien debris could pass for awhile, especially among those who already believe in the cause.

It is a sobering thought that our best efforts to anticipate future misuses of 3D printing technology are bound to fall short. Not only are criminals clever and inventive folks, but any attempt to predict the future is hamstrung by the world the would-be predictor is used to. When I interviewed the people behind the Desktop Factory, Fab@Home, and RepRap projects, I found a shared sense that, as Cathy Lewis, the CEO of Desktop Factory, put it, "the applications in the 20 year and even the 10 year horizon are those we haven't thought of today. The sky really can be the limit …" This goes for the misapplications too.

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