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A handgun created via 3-D printing has set off a storm of discussion on the Internet, but perhaps the most important piece of the story has been left out of the headlines: the gun was made with highly advanced and extremely expensive industrial-level machinery. It's a proof of concept — not a new mode of production.
3-D printing techniques — even pricey ones that use metal instead of the increasingly affordable ones that spit out plastic shapes — have been known for their speed and convenience, but not necessarily their accuracy. If you want to make a spoon, sure, but a firing assembly for a handgun?
"There's a common misconception that laser sintering isn't capable of making things like this, that it's not strong enough or exact enough," said Scott McGowan, VP of marketing at Solid Concepts, the company that made the gun, in a phone interview with NBC News. "We knew different, so we wanted to make a working example."
So they did — and it appears to work as well (or even better, some who have tested it suggest) than a store-bought version of the gun, a Model 1911 .45 caliber handgun. The gun was chosen because of its relative simplicity and the fact that its design is now, after 102 years, in the public domain. The spring and magazine, and of course the bullets had to be bought. You can't print gunpowder (yet), but everything else was machine-made in house.
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As attention getters go, this worked like a charm, but don't be worried that your next door neighbor is going to start printing out guns left and right. For one thing, "the equipment we have is about $750,000 for purchase," explained McGowan. "They can go for a million."
Even if you had the money, you'd need an industrial warehouse capable of powering the machine, which uses a high-precision laser to solidify powdered metals in a pattern determined by a 3-D computer model.
These rapid prototyping setups are often used by companies that want to perfect a design before manufacturing it overseas. They're very different from the sub-$2,000 desktop 3-D printers you can buy today, which lay down melted plastic in layers instead and were used to create the Liberator, the world's first working printed handgun.
You'd also need some special inert gases to fill the production chamber with, a skilled metalworker and gunsmith to finish the parts ("you haven't seen the pieces when they come out of the machine," said McGowan), and of course a federal firearm production license.
That last bit may be optional if you don't care about the law — but Solid Concepts is proud to say that what it created is not only the first printed-metal handgun, but one that's OK in the eyes of the law.
Even so, the company is not about to enter the gun business.
"We have some customers who are gun producers, but it's less than one percent of what we do," explained McGowan. "We just wanted to show that this technology is viable. This gun cost us many times more than it would cost to go out and buy one."
What it does do, however, is prove that the company's laser sintering process produces parts strong enough and precise enough to include not just in guns, but in satellites, medical implements, robots and so on.
Funnily enough, though printing the gun was something of a milestone, it's not a recent technical advancement that made it possible.
"The equipment we're using was available a few years ago," said McGowan. "I believe someone with a high level of expertise could have done it — but no one tried it."
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.