The benefits of 3D printing technology are known, but less frequently discussed are the dangers. The open and accessible nature of the technology means that all kinds of products can be produced by users in the comfort of their own home, even items that would otherwise be strictly regulated or controlled. An alarming report recently published by controversial research organization Rand Europe and the University of Manchester outlined the potential that exists for people to 3D print their own guns, with designs obtained on the dark web.

According to 3ders.org, the dark web is a hidden area of the internet that is deliberately inaccessible to Google’s servers, and it contains several ‘crypto-markets’, secret online marketplaces. 12 of these were included in the study, which collected data online during a week in September. The study found that instructions for making firearms were the second most popular firearms purchase on the dark web, after firearms themselves. Such purchases include instructions for how to make firearms from scratch and how to convert replica guns into real ones. The instructions for how to 3D print a gun were available for as little as $12.

The study stated that “the availability of 3D models and manufacturing of parts, components or full firearms has been recognised by the international community as a major source of concern. The proliferation of guidelines and 3D models, in combination with the increased quality of commercially available 3D printers, may result in more untraceable weapons.”

While many sectors, in particular the manufacturing industry, are finding their day-to-day operations made significantly easier and more efficient with the increasing prevalence of 3D printing technology, the opposite might prove to be true for law enforcement officials. Judith Aldridge, Professor of Criminology at The University of Manchester and a co-investigator on the research, added: ” Anyone can connect to the dark web and within minutes have access to a variety of vendors offering their products, which are most often illegal. The dark web enables illegal trade at a global level, removing some of the geographical barriers between vendors and buyers. It also increases the personal safety of both buyers and sellers through a series of anonymising features that obscure their identities”.

Whether these findings constitute a serious threat to security is debatable, but it can’t be denied that the dark web and 3D printing technology are increasing the options for people looking to procure firearms or even explosive devices. Recently the police discovered a major facility for 3D printing sub-machine guns, on Australia’s Gold Coast. The price difference compared to the street and conventional black markets is another factor in the facilitation of people getting their hands on dangerous weapons. That doesn’t mean that selling firearms online isn’t a lucrative business, though. The overall value of the arms trade based on the 12 cryptomarkets analyzed in the study is estimated to be in the region of $80,000 per month.