By on November 8, 2013

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Solid Concepts, a 3D Printing services company, has announced that it has successfully manufactured a functioning 3D printed metal gun. To produce the more than 30 parts needed to assemble a classic 1911 design, Solid Concepts used a 3D printing process that deposits powdered metals that are then sintered with a laser. The result is metal parts that are hard enough to withstand the stresses and high pressures found in a firearm. The gun is made from 33 17-4 stainless steel and Inconel 625 and has successfully fired 50 rounds. Even the carbon-fiber filled nylon hand grip was 3D printed, using “selective laser sintering”. Solid Concepts says that the project proves the viability of 3D printing of metal parts for commercial applications.

Civil libertarians and Second Amendment activists have debated the use of 3D printing to challenge gun control laws, but until now, nobody’s 3D printed a fully functioning gun that’s been able to withstand repeated firings. So what’s this post doing here at TTAC and not at the site founder’s site devoted to firearms? Besides the legal implications for gun control, the process could be a boon to automotive engineers trying out prototype parts as well as to restorers trying to reproduce hard-to-find parts and to customizers trying to make parts that have never before been made. Because it can “print” voids within solid objects, and build up components from the inside out, so to speak, 3D printing can make parts that can not be made by conventional machining or casting.

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“We’re proving this is possible, the technology is at a place now where we can manufacture a gun with 3D Metal Printing,” says Kent Firestone, Vice President of Additive Manufacturing at Solid Concepts. “And we’re doing this legally. In fact, as far as we know, we’re the only 3D Printing Service Provider with a Federal Firearms License (FFL). Now, if a qualifying customer needs a unique gun part in five days, we can deliver.”

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Solid Concept says that the metal laser sintering process is more than accurate enough to build the interchangeable and small tolerance parts needed to assemble a functioning 1911 series gun. That design was chosen because it is in the public domain. They say that 3D printed metal parts have less porosity than investment cast parts and better “complexities” than components machined from billet. The barrel ably withstands 20,000 psi of pressure when the gun is fired.

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The company chose to make a gun, no doubt because it will generate considerable interest outside the 3D printing community, but also because the engineering needs of firearms manufacture are a rigorous demonstration of 3D metal printing capabilities.

“The whole concept of using a laser sintering process to 3D Print a metal gun revolves around proving the reliability, accuracy and usability of metal 3D Printing as functional prototypes and end use products,” says Firestone. “It’s a common misconception that 3D Printing isn’t accurate or strong enough, and we’re working to change people’s perspective.”

We ran a post not long ago about a process that Ford developed that allows them to make complex sheet metal parts directly from CAD drawings. At the time I said that opens a world of possibilities for car fabricators, restorers and customizers. Now that Solid Concepts has apparently proven that you can 3D print metal hard parts, as long as you have a part’s dimensions, you can reproduce it. It no longer maters if the part is in production or not. Even if you don’t have the original blueprints or a CAD drawing, as long as you have a sample part (and the video below with Jay Leno shows that you can even used cobbled together broken parts) you can use something like NextEngine’s 3D scanner to create a digital model of the part.

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Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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31 Comments on “Successful 3D Printed Metal Gun Has Implications for Automotive Prototypers, Restorers & Customizers...”


  • avatar
    Onus

    This is interesting stuff.

    But, to chime in a simple hobbyist could machine a gun in there house without 3d printing. By creating a simple cnc setup with a Chinese mill and get a conversion kit for it and some computer software.

    Reminds me i need to take that 3d cad mooc class. It could be really helpful.

    Automotive restorers will have a ball. I actually have something i would like to have them make.

    • 0 avatar
      carrya1911

      FWIW, I believe the 3D printers capable of doing this sort of thing start at about $600,000. So gangs and “sovereign citizens” won’t be printing functional firearms in their garage.

      I’m not a materials engineer so I can’t comment intelligently on the strength and durability of the end product and how it compares to traditional machining.

      The biomedical field has been looking at a form of 3D printing to actually manufacture human organs, and has successfully printed human kidneys.

      3D printing is going to make a significant impact on our way of life in the very near future.

      • 0 avatar
        bunkie

        Actually the whole “build your own gun” thing is a moot point. The Sten gun used by various Allied resistance forces in WWII was designed to be made in backyard and hidden workshops.

        Ronnie’s point is well-taken. This technology is going to really change the world. The implications are vast. Decades ago, science fiction writer Philip K. Dick envisioned something he called an “auto factory” that would be placed on the moon and using locally-mined materials would be able to manufacture all the components of a function moon base. We’re certainly not there yet, but it’s really just a question of time.

      • 0 avatar
        tekdemon

        I think it depends on the gang doesn’t it? The cartels down south have well more than enough money to buy hundreds of these. Of course they don’t need to since they also own thousands of much better guns already.

  • avatar
    chuckrs

    This is a great publicity stunt for the company to drum up business in other areas than guns to create a range of otherwise unavailable parts. The notoriety of homemade printed guns will assure widespread ‘advertising’ of the feat. As for the 1911, the questions in my mind are what does it cost and what is the likelihood of producing it more cheaply than traditional methods going forward? I’d guess the answers are a lot, and, not much, respectively. Somewhere on the interweb you can find an account of a guy making a functional AK-47 from an old farm shovel – barrel excepted.

    • 0 avatar
      kmoney

      Agreed. With all the existing backlash toward MIM parts in guns among gun enthusiasts, and 1911 owners in particular, buyers would likely balk at an entire gun made out of a process centered on powdered metal. It would probably be a long time before they could undercut the $350-400 bottom end of new 1911′s on the market now.

  • avatar
    George Herbert

    A friend used SLS (the EON DMLS machines, I think) to fabricate two small 50-ish pound liquid rocket motors a couple of years ago, roughly pistol sized. They cost about $5000 with significant discounts.

    Machined pistols cost $400 and up. These SLS 1911s will probably be 10-20 times that much given the number and size of parts.

    A new manufacturing age is coming, but knowing what processes are economically available for large scale now, vs specialty exotic parts, is important.

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    This is amazing technology that appears to do things that molds can never do. Think of the myriad classic car parts that can now be reproduced (or even improved) without the need for old tooling and molds. I wonder if things like rubber bushings and seals could ever be 3-D printed.

    • 0 avatar
      davefromcalgary

      you hit it on the head steve. No molds required is a huge boon to manufacturing.

      • 0 avatar
        NoGoYo

        So many unloved 1970s/80s cars can be saved!

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        Only for really low volume pieces, 3D printing takes a very very long time to produce a piece. But yeah if you want to make only a couple of something then it is less expensive than producing tooling to make the parts.

        • 0 avatar
          davefromcalgary

          But scoutdude, perhaps as the tech advances, printing speeds will improve as well! And available material properties as well!

          yay science!

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            The tech has advanced considerably but the speed hasn’t improved that much in the 20 plus years that this has been around. The problem lies in the laws of physics. Put in more heat to speed the melting process and you compromise precision.

      • 0 avatar
        Syke

        What I’m thinking of is all the ’30′s cars that can be put back on the road without resorting to SBC’s and street rodding them. The old excuse of “you can’t get the parts anymore, so a modern drivetrain was the only alternative” no longer applies.

  • avatar
    Hummer

    I can only hope this technology becomes widely availible. This is absolutely amazing news for car people.

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    OK now let’s see them print a set of con rods for an endurance racer and finish a 24 hour race.

  • avatar
    fredtal

    …back to cars…don’t forget you also need a way to model the parts which means a CAD program. You might be able to download a file, but if it’s not perfect then you will have to modify the file or do some work on the part. Also there is a process of using silicon molds to make parts like lenses, bezels, ornaments etc Works good if you have a part to make the mold from.

    Leno has a 3d printer, plenty of vendors will make you a part for money. So we are just waiting for prices to come down and they have a lot in the last few years. Who every said $600,000 is about 10 years behind the curve. I’d say a tenth of that. Check out “Maker” folks for some ideas.

    • 0 avatar
      George Herbert

      Fredtal: $600,000 was for the Selective Laser Sintering tools for making solid metal parts like this handgun.

      There are much cheaper (down below $1,000) additive manufacturing tools for making plastics and so forth. But those tools can’t make steel parts.

      You can make a plastic plug to then coat in sand or casting material and then do lost-wax, investment casting, etc. type fabrication with. But that’s two-stage and most people can’t reliably cast engineering-grade steel.

      The SLS metal forming machines directly print metal that’s roughly as good as bulk alloy (hot or cold rolled, etc) that you then machine. But the SLS part is made to final shape (or very close to it) in one pass.

  • avatar

    I see the implications for enthusiasts, but down the line, what might this mean for the [assumption]highly profitable[/assumption] OEM parts industry?

    Things will start simply enough; an intake manifold spacer, maybe hybrid motor mounts, etc., but somebody’s going to need a simple bracket, get quoted $150 for a replacement at the dealer, and ask his online buddies if anyone has a .dwg file or can print him one.

    This technology, though in its infancy, is going to advance mas rapido. Now anyone with a desktop PC, a couple nicer measurement tools, and a desire to do it cheap and right – and the patience to know that’s never fast – is going to be in the reverse-engineering business.

    Metaphor: Scientists have developed a means to store electricity for future use. They call it a “battery,” and $200 will buy you enough capacity to drive your electric car half a mile at 2mph. Only those with deep wallets can afford to buy the lithium potassium battery packs required to go 60 miles at 90mph, but as demand increases…

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Actually the industry is far from infancy SLS has been around for 20 years or more. The cost of course has come down and the accuracy has gone up.

      However it will not replace mass production and is not a viable solution for something like replacing a bracket that is still manufactured. MFGs aren’t going to share the design files for the parts so someone will have to spend the time to put the part into a CAD program accurately and of course will have to have the machine to produce those parts. It just doesn’t make sense to spend the time required, not to mention the capital involved, to avoid buying that $150 part.

      • 0 avatar
        fredtal

        It’s real value is in making parts that can’t be bought or even found. Just maybe you can find a part to copy and then make.

      • 0 avatar

        Touche, though I hardly think it matters whether or not OEMs share design files. How did we get all those forged pistons and rods? Call me naive, but I highly doubt OEMs published manifold flange specs so we could custom build intake and exhaust manifolds.

        It’s the nature of the enthusiast. Buy a car you like, start playing with it. When something breaks or wears out, and the dealership wants a ridiculous price for the same Chinese-made product you can find online simply because they put their own brand label on it, you’re going to the aftermarket.

        And now we have another potential tool at our disposal. Maybe we can’t “print” inconel turbine blades – yet – but we’ll get there soon enough. There was just an article on Reddit this week about a guy who had built his own 3D printer from scratch and received a grant to move it toward mass production. Estimated MSRP? US$100.

        Never underestimate the power of a gearhead.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          Actually mfgs do $ell or give their design files to the makers of aftermarket performance parts but they are not going to do that for the average Joe.

          As far as the 3D printer revolution you can find lots of plans online to build one from parts from an old printer or other parts lying around the house. I don’t buy the MSRP of only $100 because of the motors, encoders, control system electronics and the heater that are required. Maybe a kit where you need to supply a substantial number of parts for $100. There are however a number of sub $1000 3D printers already on the market. Note those printers use ABS or similar thermoplastics. Do a search for 3D printed hand to see one innovative way to put the technology to work.

  • avatar
    BMWnut

    Ooh, now that is nice. Can I have an 1896 Mauser carbine in 7x57mm please? Pruddy pleeeeeeze, it is nearly Christmas and I have been a really good boy this year.

  • avatar

    But can it print a Vortec V3 and will it melt under pressure?

  • avatar
    Charliej

    For guns, you can’t print rifling. In the real world though, Airbus is using metal printing technology to make parts for aircraft landing gear. Landing gear on jet passenger aircraft has to be very tough. I wish that they had this when I was in the electronic repair business. I could have made control knobs for out dated equipment. Electronic parts are easy to find. Knobs, cases and other plastic parts are almost unobtainable.

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    Think of the military applications. The A10 Warthog is plentiful but the co. is long gone. The moulds and bucks were destroyed. Being able to scan and retrofit new parts into old machines will extend their lives immensely. Think of boats and trains too. There’s a ton of old but useful bits of machinery that can be reused instead of being scrapped because of parts issues.

    Going forward it will also be a boon to the aftermarket. You will be able to go down to your local speed shop and buy a kit that adapts fitting a blabla into a doohickey. You tell them what you need and wait 3 weeks and it will be delivered. LSx Mazda3 FTW!

  • avatar
    jeffzekas

    Yay! Now I can have my 1938 Type 57SC Atlantic printed for me!

  • avatar
    jimbob457

    WOW. It looks like the promise that someday soon an ordinary engineer in the field faced with a certain unique problem might be able to design and manufacture a one off part as a solution and at a reasonable cost.

    No committees or turf wars, mostly just electrons moving around. Imagine what that might do to innovation once news of the many winners starts getting around. Design driven by those who actually know wtf is going on? Nah! Utopia is always just a dream.


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