A researcher at the University at Buffalo believes he has found a way to trace guns or other objects fabricated on 3D printers back to the specific machine that crafted them.
The discovery that 3D printers each leave unique "fingerprints," researchers say, has the potential to eventually help law enforcement agencies track the source of 3D-printed guns, which to this point were thought to be untraceable.
3D printers, as they build objects layer by layer, leave unique patterns of tiny wrinkles in what they produce, said Wenyao Xu, associate professor in UB's Department of Computer Science & Engineering.
Through digital scanning and analysis of the fabricated objects – or a piece of the object as small as 1 mm by 2 mm – items can be matched back to the printer on which they were made through minute imperfections left through the manufacturing process, researchers found.
As the use of 3D printers continues to become more widespread, police have seen danger in the growing ease through which someone could craft a homemade firearm that wouldn't have a serial number.
"This is one exploratory step to understand the security and the potential to control the security hazard," Xu said.
Xu, along with researchers at Rutgers and Northeastern universities, presented the results of 18 months of work at the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Computer and Communications Security in October in Toronto.
They call their work "PrinTracker."
3D printers can forge items using a number of materials. This research looked at products made with plastic, metal and carbon fiber.
Developing a method to trace 3D-printed objects grew out of the idea that law enforcement can already trace the source of paper documents printed on 2D ink printers, Xu said.
In order for law enforcement to be able to trace the source of a 3D gun, police would already have to possess the signatures of individual 3D printers, possibly through some type of registry or database.
Xu sees his work not solely through the lens of a single academic pursuit. He said he believes fellow researchers in the region can take advantage of Buffalo's rich history in manufacturing to continue to rebuild the area's image by pairing modern computer science technology and manufacturing.
"We would like to rebuild those strengths," he said.