Researchers Develop Method for Tracking 3D-Printed Firearms

Thanks to the PrinTracker, it may become easier than before to trace some weapons which are produced using 3D printing.
Mario L. Major

Few would argue with the overwhelming evidence that 3D printing enables the dynamic production of a staggering array of objects, from the minuscule to the oversized.


Two decades ago, who among us would've imagined that producing 3D-printed homes or even robotic sensors could have been achievable with the use of this groundbreaking technology. 

However, some sides of to the technology, have recently come under scrutiny. These sides pertain to the appropriation of 3D printing capabilities for the task of making weapons which have led to both suprisingly favorable results as well as legal battles.

Tracking down 3D-Printed Objects

Adding to ongoing the debate, a University of Buffalo-led study has set out to create, for the first time, a traceable means of connecting a 3D-printed object to the machine from which it was made. Named the PrinTracker, it specifically aims at helping various intelligence and law enforcement agencies to more easily and efficiently track the firearms which have been produced using 3D printing technology. 

Some members of the team who designed the study presented their work earlier this week in Toronto, Canada at the annual ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS), which serves as one of the largest meetings in the world for professionals who work in a number of different security-related fields to discuss innovative challenges, developments and solutions. 

How the Technology Works

The PrinTracker work using a very simple engineering concept based on discovering the in-fill patterns of a 3D-printed gun, which essentially contain info about the object. In practice, however, small differences that exist in terms of the lack of uniformity can complicate the process. The aim of the team's invention is to account for these differences. 

“3D printers are built to be the same. But there are slight variations in their hardware created during the manufacturing process that lead to unique, inevitable and unchangeable patterns in every object they print,” explains Wenyao Xu, PhD, associate professor of computer science and engineering in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and co-presenter at the conference. 

Testing involved the creation of five door keys from 14 typical 3D printers ranging from four stereolithography (SLA) printers and ten fused deposition modeling (FDM) printers and four stereolithography (SLA) printers.

The Thinking Behind the Study

On the subject of the unique security challenges which the technology presents, Xu, explains, "3D printing has many wonderful uses, but it’s also a counterfeiter’s dream. Even more concerning, it has the potential to make firearms more readily available to people who are not allowed to possess them."

More specifically, the researchers see their work as a proactive measure designed for addressing a growing reality involving "malicious users increasingly [who] have sought to leverage this widely accessible platform to produce unlawful tools for criminal activities," further adding, "Therefore, it is of paramount importance to identify the origin of unlawful 3D printed products using digital forensics."

Details about the study appear in a conference paper, titled "PrinTracker: Fingerprinting 3D Printers using Commodity Scanners". 

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