Oct 16, 2018 | By Thomas

The wide release of the 3D-printed gun blueprints has become an issue for policymakers. With 3D printers, a person could download a schematic for a firearm online, and create a gun on the spot. No serial number to trace the 3D printed guns, which will become cheap and accessible for would-be criminals.

Photo illustration of how the technology works. Credit: Wenyao Xu, University at Buffalo.

Researchers at University at Buffalo, however, report they’ve found the first accurate method to help law enforcement and intelligence agencies track the origin of 3D-printed guns and counterfeit products. The technology, called "PrinTracker," can precisely trace the physical object to its source 3D printer based on its fingerprint.

Potential untraceable 3D printed objects acquired from the crime scene

In a press release, Wenyao Xu, PhD, associate professor of computer science and engineering in UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences explains part of the methodology:

Each layer of a 3D-printed object contains tiny wrinkles — usually measured in submillimeters — called in-fill patterns. These patterns are supposed to be uniform. However, the printer’s model type, filament, nozzle size and other factors cause slight imperfections in the patterns. The result is an object that does not match its design plan.


For example, the printer is ordered to create an object with half-millimeter in-fill patterns. But the actual object has patterns that vary 5 to 10 percent from the design plan. Like a fingerprint to a person, these patterns are unique and repeatable. As a result, they can be traced back to the 3D printer.

“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,” Xu says.

To test PrinTracker, the research team 3D printed five door keys each from 14 different commercially available 3D printers — 10 frequency division multiplexing (FDM) printers and four stereolithography (SLA) printers. The team created digital images of each key with an inkjet scanner, then enhanced each image to identify the filament pattern. They then developed an algorithm to calculate variations of each key down to the millimeter to verify the authenticity of the fingerprint. Owing to the effective comparison from the fingerprint in the pre-formed database, the physical object in forensic scenes can be precisely traced to its source 3D printer.

The system overview of PrinTracker.

According to researchers, they were able to match the key to its printer 99.8 percent of the time. They ran another round of tests 10 months later to determine if additional use of the printers would affect PrinTracker’s ability to match objects to their machine of origin. The results were the same. Researchers also ran experiments involving keys damaged in various ways to obscure their identity. PrinTracker was 92 percent accurate in these tests.

The two types of texture on a 3D printed object.

Xu hopes PrinTracker can be used to trace any 3D-printed object to its printer.

“We’ve demonstrated that PrinTracker is an effective, robust and reliable way that law enforcement agencies, as well as businesses concerned about intellectual property, can trace the origin of 3D-printed goods,” Xu says.

However, regulating guns that aren't traditionally manufactured won't be easy. Tracing 3D printed guns would require a record of all 3D printers being sold and information of whoever buys it. Their "fingerprints" would have to be stored in a government database. Given that only 79 million civilian guns are actually registered, which is just 9% of the total suspected guns, it might take a while before the team’s method could ever be implemented.

The “PrinTracker” study will be presented in Toronto at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Computer and Communications Security, which runs from Oct. 15-19. It includes coauthors from Rutgers University and Northeastern University.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Jin wrote at 12/2/2018 1:45:02 AM:

I feel like this is a potential solution to an insubstantial problem. The cost and time of 3D printing a gun is ridiculously higher than someone just going to a US walmart and just buying said gun. Real guns need stricter regulations so that's what taxpayer funding should go to, not ridiculous projects such as this. I don't know if the researchers on this project just realize how cheap buying new nozzles and new 3D printers cost. Certainly not as much to cost more than a rifle but definitely more than enough to put this project to shame.

Fused Deposition Modeling wrote at 11/16/2018 3:51:12 PM:

So how much would a post CNC'ing process affect printed parts? It'd be the equivalent of burning off finger prints, right?

Wilwrk4tls wrote at 10/24/2018 6:43:01 PM:

I think part of the constantly overlooked issue is that it is, in the United States, legal to make firearms for personal use and they don't need to have serial numbers. Beyond that, I imagine that after running some carbon filament through your printer its fingerprint wouldn't be the same. As already mentioned a database would be unnecessary. It would also be overly complicated, almost never up to date, and inaccurate as soon as someone sells their printer to someone else. Thankfully that, at the moment, is still legal. Of course, an attempt could be made to regulate any and all tools related to the possible manufacture of firearms, at which point nothing will go unregistered. I'm sure someone out there is giddy at the thought of having a computer capable of tracking all those possible devices. When the world is back to being gun free people will still do harm to one another in other (more creative) ways. Good luck tracking the next potential.

Bernhard Slawik wrote at 10/22/2018 3:25:44 PM:

FDM stands for "Fluid Deposition Modeling" in this context.

James wrote at 10/18/2018 5:13:16 PM:

Add a reasonable amount of mass to the moving print head and suddenly those fingerprint features are different. The subtle "wrinkles" described are now damped differently, overshoot is different, etc.

marcus2tts wrote at 10/17/2018 3:37:36 PM:

There is so much wrong with this. Did they test objects from multiple printers of the same model? I don't see that. They would have no way of knowing what parameters were used to slice the object they are testing. The set-up would have to be exactly the same to test against. What version of firmware was running? Has the nozzle changed? What filament was used? What environmental conditions were present at the time of the original printing? This "evidence" would be ripped apart in a court of law.

Andy Hasara wrote at 10/16/2018 8:36:07 PM:

2 Comments: First: No, you would not need to store a database of all 3D Printers. This method would be used like matching a bullet to a gun: It merely needs to to be tested against a specific printer to show it was used in that manufacture. Second: FDM, in this context, does not refer to "frequency division multiplexing".

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