Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Murder in 3-D

Sharon Wildwind

The trending topic in our house right now is 3-D printing. In the time it took me to blink 3-D printers went from novelties turning out primary-colored plastic gee-gaws to huge industrial printers incorporating over a dozen materials into one model.

The first Y-split has already happened between professional manufacturers and serious geekdom.

The professional manufacturers are printing entire jet engines weighing 30%-40% less than those made in the conventional manner; medical-grade surgical implants and prostheses—There’s a eagle flying free in the wild wearing a prosthetic beak; movie props—Why blow up a real Aston Martin DB5 when you can blow up a couple in the movie, auction the remaining one for a good hunk of cash, and still have spent less money than one real Aston Martin costs?; scaffolds for coral reefs to grow on that are resistant to the rising acid levels in the oceans; and clothing created entirely out of polyester filaments, which, incidently can be combined with LED lights so that your clothes light up, or monitoring capabilities to check your blood pressure, blood glucose level, cardiac status, and the like.

Serious geekdom is being more modest, at least for now. Got a retro lamp that you love, but for which parts no longer exist? Print the parts you need. Thinking of remodeling your house? Print a 3-D model of what your completed renovations will look like. Model train enthusiast? Want to build a replica of your city’s real downtown area for your diorama? Print it building by building.

What heated up our home discussion was the announcement that the office-supply company, Staples, will provide a 3-D printing service, which customers can access from home. Draw a design, upload it to Staples’ website, and have the resulting print-out shipped to your home. We’ve already got a list of things we need printed. Perhaps need is too strong a word, but it’s the one we’re going with.

A top-of-the-line industrial-grade mega-printer costs about half a million dollars, so we’re going to be giving Staples business for the forseeable future, but maybe not forever. Makerbot already advertises a starter printer which they suggest would be perfect for elementary schools. Hold a bake sale or two and introduce kids to inventing and manufacturing their own goods at a young age.

You probably already know where thinking about this led me. Take any mystery writer on a tour of a new building, and she finds places to hide a body. Show her a new gadget and she spends hours musing on how it can be used as a) a murder weapon b) a red herring or c) a way to insert a clue into a mystery.

3-D Printers and the Mystery Novel
  • Sad to say, some experimenters have already produced working firearm components on 3-D printers. These are instant, one-use, disposable, untraceable firearms. Use it and toss it in the nearest fireplace, burning barrel, or other heat source. Let’s see what forensics can do with a lump of molten plastic or a bunch of ashes.
  • When Great Britain reformed its chemist’s system to included signing a ledger whenever poisonous substances were purchases, police had a new way to trace possible poisoners. The same is true today of tracking purchases of materials that might be used to produce illicit drugs or other materials not in the public interest. What happens when these materials can be printed by the end-user?
  • Need to bypass a door protected by retinal scan security software? Print the inside of the back of an eye.
  • Want someone else accused of the bank robbery you commit? Print facial details and combine them with movie makeup to create unassailable witness statements and closed-circuit video tapes. Just to be certain, also print a fake license plate for your get-away car.
  • Want to steal something, but not clue the owners into their precious object being missing? Print a replica and make a switch.

Have I mentioned that chocolate is one of the materials already being printed? Edible chocolate structures have been around for about five years now. At MIT, they’ve figured out how to print faces in chocolate.

Personally, I’d much rather have printed chocolate than printed guns.


Quote for the week
Strength is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands - and then eat just one of the pieces.
~ Judith Viorst; author, journalist and researcher


JJM said...

Wondered when you'd get around to explaining what all that 3-D printing had to do with mysteries -- but, yes, indeed, very clever. Except for the bit about printing the inside of the back of an eye ... Talk about a Buñuel image! for how else would you get the model for the printer to follow?? Frankly, I think that's a mystery I'd be just as happy to skip. The others, though ... hmmmm ....


Anonymous said...

It's not as yucky as you think, Mario. There are scanners that map the inside of the back of the eye. They're used to assess things like macular degeneration damage and other eye conditions. Do a scan, download it to a thumb drive, probably need some computer-assisted drawing to turn it into a format the 3-D printer can read, print it, and off you go.

JJM said...

You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that. Obviously, I'm somewhat behind the times when it comes to matters medical ...

BTW, on re-reading my comment, I discover to my horror that I didn't (a) insert a [spoken in a light, playful tone of voice] emoticon, thus making the "Wondered when you'd get around" sound like a criticism; and (b) tell you I enjoyed reading your post, and found your potential uses for this new technology ingenious. My sincere apologies. Not to mention my sincere wishes of Good Luck!!! to any detective(s) assigned to the case should you ever decide to take up a life of crime "for realz" ... --M

mb said...

Oooh, thank you. I've been realizing for a while that 3D printing is not just potential but HAPPENING somewhere just off my personal map of current reality. Keep meaning to find just a tiny little something to read, and you provided it.

Anonymous said...

Darn, Mario, you've outed me. All this mystery writing is just a cover for planning my future life of crime.