Monday, December 10, 2018

Bonus Post: Additive Manufacturing and Firearms.

As technology continues to progress more and more industries will face competition from 
those who challenge the traditional methods of manufacture and supply. One area ripe from 
such disruption in the coming decade(s) is firearms. Traditional supply methods for firearms 
have middleman fees far in excess of other fields and are extremely inconvenient to the 
consumer, is makes the industry ripe for disintermediation should a legal method be found. 
Due to the way US law is written the ability to leverage additive manufacturing (3D printing) 
into a successful, legal, online firearms business is a very real possibility. Currently a number 
of challenges, both technological and cost based, exist but the trend line is clear and those 
should become surmountable.

The firearms market is massive. Each year recreational shooters and hunters spend 
approximately $100 billion on the sport in the United States alone, mostly on travel and 
ammunition. The market for new firearms ballooned under Obama as fears of 
impending regulation made firearms fly off the shelves as fast as they could be made and 
while the industry has slowed in recent years it remains strong, AFT reporting ~10 million 
firearms sales in 2017 compared to ~12 million in 2015. The market is also highly regulated. 
With a few minor exemptions for historical firearms each firearm sold in the US must be 
sold through licensed dealer and is subject to a series of checks and fees, which can be 
federal, state and local. These add up in a way not seen in other industries. For example, 
the author purchased a surplus firearm through an online distributor in the past year for 
a cost of $250, before paying tax on the initial purchase. This firearm was then shipped 
to a licensed firearms dealer with an additional cost for shipping regulated items. The local 
dealer then charged a fee for transferring the firearm and a fee for running the required
 federally required background checks, then there a tax for a state required check and a the 
addition of state sales tax for the final transfer. By the end of it there was an additional almost 
$200 (80%) of taxes and fees, multiple rounds of paperwork and a wait of more then two 
weeks. If a business is able to avoid the fees, taxes and hassle of their product legally being a 
firearm there is money to be made. Such a business would sell the legally non-a-firearm 
components as well as a printer for the buyer to manufacture the controlled components 
themselves - which is completely legal - and make a profit off of the difference between the 
cost of the printer and the cost of paying taxes and fees. 

 Despite regulations involved in shipping and transfering
firearms the market is booming.

What is a firearm? One would think this is a simple answer but when there is money on 
the line the exact language matters. Without quoting an entire block of legalize and getting 
into the web that is ATF rulings on particular designs a firearm in the US is the component that 
contains the trigger, fire control group and hammer, this component is referred to as the 
receiver. This means that the components which must be manufactured to withstand the high 
pressures of firing a cartridge - the barrel, bolt, locking components, recoil and gas systems 
etc - are unregulated. Therefore they can all be sold on the online market direct from 
manufacturer to consumers, and such sales are both common and profitable. It is reasonable 
to assume that companies attempting to disrupt the firearms market will use traditional 
manufacturing techniques for the majority of their designs and then sell 3D printers along 
with the required CAD files and materials for the buyer to manufacture their own receiver 
and assemble the firearm.

The lower receiver is the only controlled component on an AR-15 rifle.

The idea of making a business off of selling DIY firearm kits at any sort of scale may seem 
ridiculous but it already exists. The below pictured AR-15 was assembled by the author 
from a kit purchased online combined with a locally purchased "stripped" (no trigger, springs 
etc) lower receiver (the AR-15 had both a lower and an upper receiver, legally the lower is 
firearm) literally in a garage. The modular nature of modern firearm designs means that the 
market for additional aftermarket kits, including barrels, bolts, magazines and other difficult 
to manufacture components are commonly sold on the unregulated market online. The 
firearms buying community is more than willing to buy online, at least for items where buying 
online decreases rather than increased the complexity of the purchase.

Despite the lack of machine tools the fact the author had no experience
 whatsoever there were only minor issues in assembling this rifle.

Pistols may seem like an obvious choice for additive manufacturing techniques as the 
lack many of the problems associated with rifle designs and offer even more benefits. 
Pistol ammunition is far less powerful than rifle ammunition, decreasing stress on the 
parts and allowing for lower quality parts to function safely. Popular pistols have already 
transitioned to plastics for their controlled components; the only metal component on the 
controlled frame of the massively popular Glock series of pistols is the metal plate 
containing the serial number. Furthermore pistols are typically taxed higher and subject 
to longer waiting periods than rifles and shotguns, allowing more money to be spent on 
the printer while staying competitive with tradition manufacturing. However, pistol 
manufacture runs into one major problem: the action is not safe. With the exception of 
revolvers and single shots, which due to ATF rules would not work for the type of business 
being discussed, every design starting with the Browning 1903 more than a century ago 
has featured a slide which travels back towards the shooter under recoil. This opens up 
the chamber, allows for extraction of the spent case and for feeding of the next round 
before the slide returns forward, normally due to spring pressure. The basic problem 
with this design is obvious. If the lowest quality component - the printed locking/stop 
mechanism on the printed frame fails then a large metal slide will fly into the face of the 
shooter. As sending large amounts of metal into the face of your customers at high 
velocities into the face tends to hurt sales this is not a feasible design. There does exist 
an alternative method of functioning, called "blow forward" which was explored in a handful 
of designs around the turn of the 20th century, only one of which - a Japanese design - 
was produced in more than single digit numbers. Firearms using this obscure system 
recoil forward, away from the shooter. With a blow-forward design a pistol could be 
made safely with moderately capable consumer-grade polymer printing. However all 
the additional parts such as the slide, action, fire control group and more would have 
to be designed for the pistol and would fail to take advantage of the existing economies 
of scale that allow for extremely cheap parts for more traditional actions.

Currently no major company had taken the plunge into 3D printed firearms for the 
individual consumer. The only company to make a foray into live fire 3D printed firearms 
is the ideologically motivated Defense Distributed. This company does not have a real 
profit model and instead fighting the lengthy initial court battles for ideological reasons. 
So far the cases have gone in their favor, and likely will continue to do so unless the law 
is changed. One UK based company has found minor success by printing mechanically 
functional (sans firing pin) non-functional plastic replicas of unavailable historic firearms 
for the enthusiast market. It is unlikely that major manufactures will seek to exploit 
consumer additive manufacturing as part of their business model. There is simply too much 
legal exposure for large multinational arms corporations to risk national level sanctions and 
lawsuits for the relatively minor unproven market. This leaves the field open to smaller 

Non-firing printed copy of an 1880s experimental pistol made
for sale on the British market.

In my opinion the most likely model to first see commercial success will be selling 
modified and new designs made expressly to minimize the disadvantages of near-future 
consumer-grade 3d printing equipment. This is particularly important for a product such 
as a firearm, which can cause serious injury when it fails. A modified design could be 
an AR-15 with an extended buffer tube screw thread and coarse threads to mitigate 
both the use of a weaker polymer rather than the original aluminum as well as allowing 
for the looser tolerances of consumer printer. New designs would be similar to the 
previously discussed printed-frame blow-forward pistol, which could make use of 
standard Glock bolts and barrels. These designs would make use of both common 
and new parts, letting them access economies of scale for expensive to produce 
components while making gaining maximum profit margins for their own cheap to 
produce the specialized parts. This also allows the company to ensure that sales and 
profits will continue to flow to them after the initial purchase of the 3d printer and more 
importantly to prevent unlicensed distribution of the CAD files from undermining the 
entire business. By combining existing supply chains, emergent technology and new 
designs made to minimize the chance of failure when constructed of poor quality 
materials as well as to fail in a safe way a business could reasonably turn a 
substantial profit selling the files and components required to print and construct 
firearms. In the current environment that virtually guarantees that someone will do it. 
How governments respond will be interesting indeed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Blog 100: More Challenges and Less Money.

Currently journalism is going through a massive decline as the traditional revenue sources prove no longer viable to support the large legacy organizations required to investigate, verify, record and achieve information on a large scale. The primary method of monetization is still advertising the main revenue source for journalism , even for online organizations. This has and will produce two main effects, namely the lack of incentive to produce substantive (and costly) investigative articles over cheaper and shallower "clickbait" articles as well as the decrease in funding overall as expensive subscriptions and print advertising is replaced with extremely low return online advertising. As the money continue to leave journalism numbers of journalists who do anything other then rewrite others articles and local Twitter reports will continue to decrease.

One aspect, far less talked about, is the problem of digital decay making journalism a very much quickly expiring product. The internet in constantly in turmoil, editing, replacing and going offline. This means that citations and sources that may have been valid when the article was written disappear with alarming rapidity. This is most obvious in the case of reports on the Middle East North Africa region, where it is a very real necessity to read reports as soon as they are released as much of their source materiel is removed extremely quickly. There was at least one article I read that cited a video which was taken down the day after the article was published by YouTubes automated information control system.As such automated systems are improved and spread through the major corporate and governmental structures there continued use is guaranteed , and the continued quick removal of primary sources will be a staple of future issues. This means that journalistic endeavors will either have to become archives of primary material, copying and hosting source material to prevent it from being purged, or simply depend on the reader to take their word that the source did indeed exist at some point.*

The overall outlook is not a good one.

*I had been planning on including a few examples of this from my own digital archive of the Syrian Civil War, including a screengrab from the first (and long gone) video recorded loss of a SAA T-72 but my PC motherboard failed, removing my access to the images and illustrating the problems with digital storage at the same time.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Blog 011: html for them all.

Working with html again was an odd experience. The last time I used html to build a website, as opposed to adding tags to posts made on online forums, was back in early high school, roughly eight years ago at this point, and it was not a skill that I had expected to use again.The webpage I ended up producing was a simple one, single page no images, more of a “hello world” page then anything that would actually get deployed to the internet at any point later then the 90s.

The use of a text editor (in this case notepad) was not a hindrance or oddity for me as I am one of the few people who actually use notepad on a regular basis as a word processor. While it is most certainly not the most annoying language I have worked with - that dubious honor goes to TI Basic and its inexplicable inability to handle nested if statements - it is certainly not the best. The language is simply adequate to its purposes, it makes a website and makes you remember to include all the end tags. Of course it must be noted here that I do feel that a simple html page such as the one produced should be done in a simple text editor such as notepad rather than a more modern text editor that actually reminds you to include end tags, because where is the fun in simply being told where you made mistakes?

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Blog 010: The Postal Service tried sending Mail by Cruise Missile.

As the name implies email does take inspiration in both form and function from traditional physical mail. The method of sending the data (mail) to increasingly higher order addresses before sending it to correspondingly lower addresses is taken from the physical method of sorting and distribution centers. Both can be used for the exchange of information between parties. Email is substantially faster for the vastly majority of use cases but is much slower than mailing physical data storage media when dealing with large amounts of information is to moved. 

Email functions substantially differently in practical terms than physical mail due to its electronic nature. Due to the massively simplified nature of sending mail electronically the ease of creating spam is accordingly simplified. This creates a need for sorting methods to filter out unwanted or harmful files, as well as default sorting categories for individual accounts not needed for physical mail. In the digital sphere this is usually done on the receiving side of the process, while the majority of the security screening for physical mail is done on the outbound side.* The most substantial difference for the majority of users is that physical mail, being physical, can allow for the transportation of goods and tangible objects rather than merely information.  Also people tend to have single mailing addresses and multiple email addresses.

*A little known fact is that the Postal Service has an armed component with arrest authority. Meanwhile Google can not shoot nor arrest people for misusing gmail. Yet.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Blog 001: Insert Witty Title Here

Out of this class I hope to acquire a greater understanding of the underlying fundamental technologies and ideas used in modern computer and digital systems. Currently I am lacking information regarding a number of areas which makes understanding a great deal of information regarding topics of personal and professional interest much more difficult than need be. While I hold no delusions that a single quarter class can completely remedy this issue it seems like a decent enough place to start gaining some degree of reliable information. As the world continues to rely on the internet for an increasingly large number of vital systems and as it becomes omnipresent by the inclusion of previously non-networked devices such information will be required to prevent doing or saying something incredibly dumb, like saying that the new US ICBM should be connected to the internet for some incomprehensibly stupid reason (luckily for the human race that was just a single corneal and it appears that everyone else knows how insanely stupid that would be). Furthermore I find workflow and social dynamics of internet-only groups to be a fascinating topic, hopefully that will be covered to some degree in class as well as the technical and historical aspects.  

The other main thing I hope to gain from this class is three credits and a good grade. As a 200 level class it should prove well in my ability to gain a grade which can work to offset the effects of substantially more demanding courses on my overall grade.