Jason Ray thinks the culture of “disaster prepping” is misunderstood. Thanks in part to National Geographic’s Doomsday Preppers, a reality TV show about preppers, the term conjures images of far-flung, paranoid woodsmen hoarding Borax under their floorboards, a caricature of prepping that does no favors to Ray, whose main concern is taking care of his family.
So-called preppers are known to meticulously organize their lives, so when their sky-is-falling scenario of choice manifests—Ray’s is a mass recession if Donald Trump becomes president—they’ll have all their bases covered. Whether it’s economic collapse or environmental disaster, preppers will have food, water, shelter, and bodily safety accounted for. Primitive skills like hunting and hoarding will distinguish survivors from victims when the end comes.
As a result, many preppers sneer at technology as a volatile resource-sink. After all, how will you charge your iPhone when terrorists explode the power grids?
Ray, 36, learned the tenets of prepping—gardening, chopping wood, storing water, and canned food—from his grandparents in Portland, Oregon. When he deployed to Iraq, he added shooting and groupthink to his repertoire of end-of-world aptitudes. Self-reliance, the highest prepper virtue, is his driving principle.
Part of a small and controversial subset of preppers, Ray approaches self-reliance a little differently from his more backwoods survivalist brothers. Also known as the 3D Prepper, Ray, who currently lives in Germany, believes that one of the most versatile tools for survival is none other than the 3D printer.
“The connection was instantaneous,” he explained. “I can create tools much more functional than what’s already out there.”
More traditional preppers consider the idea absurd. When Western civilization crumbles, they argue, no technology will be functional after a decade (or ten) of post-apocalypse primal living.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing enables users to prototype models on their computers before printing them layer-by-layer on their 3D printer. Printing materials include plastic, nylon, resins, and titanium. Designs for everything from soap dishes to wrenches are offered free and open-source on websites likeThingiverse.com, which hosts nearly 600,000 digital models.
Ray first witnessed 3D printing in 2008 at a hackerspace in Frankfurt, Germany. Three years prior, mathematical engineer Adrian Bowyer had founded the RepRap project in the UK, which would develop affordable 3D printers for household use. Self-replicating, the RepRap printer can print its own plastic parts using open-source hardware. As a result, RepRap lowered the entry fee for 3D printing from about $5,000-$20,000 to mere hundreds of dollars.
The first thing Ray saw 3D-printed was a small plastic elephant, which, moments previous, was simply a formulation of pixels on a screen. Translating the technique to the prepping lifestyle, he said, was completely intuitive. Whatever he needs, should disaster strike, would be just a few clicks away.
“I can make homemade knives, toys, even tools that don’t exist,” Ray told me. “I can make replacement parts for things that broke. Instead of buying a new drill for $120, I 3D printed some gears. It’s been working for years now.”
Mike, a prepper who lives outside Chicago, also raved about the printer’s versatility in survival contexts. Like Ray, Mike collected hobbies on a farm in rural Wisconsin. Canning, gardening, carpentry and blacksmithing are just a few of the tricks he keeps in his back pocket for the next sky-is-falling scenario he lives through. His first was Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
“I went 17 days without water,” he recalled. “I didn’t drive for three months because there was no gas. That’s what brought me into the prepper concept.”
Mike has built a few 3D printers, but raves about his RepRap, mostly on his personal blog where he tracks his 3D-prepping accomplishments. He has printed shims to secure his windows, a sub-irrigation system for his planters, mini-stoves and toys for his daughters. He’s even designed sewing bobbins, knife sharpeners and clamps, patterns he’s tossed on his Thingiverse.com page for anyone to use.
“For me, it’s just a tool,” Mike said. Instead of driving fifteen minutes to Walmart—which, in his experience, is not always possible—Mike can download open-source tool patterns, turn on the printer, and walk away.
Even Scott Hunt, co-owner of Practical Preppers, LLC and consultant on DoomsdayPreppers, thinks a 3D printer can round out a prepper’s toolkit. Over e-mail, he explained that, recently when he was working on an off-grid water heating system, he needed a small, plastic rotating device for a centrifugal pump. “I could have printed the impeller in a grid down and been up and running the same day,” he said.
“Of course,” he adds, “you would need electricity to run the printer,” a critical caveat that has sunken 3D printers’ stock within the more survivalist-leaning prepper community.
How you define “collapse” in a survival scenario can make or break the 3D printer’s usefulness in crisis scenarios: It could be nuclear war. It could be a financial crisis or a solar flare. Environmental disaster is an objective likelihood, still gaining traction among more right-wing preppers. Maybe it’s human extinction.
In any of these doomsday scenarios, electricity is not a given: A RepRap printer uses about 105 watts of power on average. The MakerBot, which essentially replaced RepRap after the company folded earlier this year, uses about 150 watts while printing.
On /r/collapse, a Reddit forum for “the end of the world as we know it … especially due to diminishing resources, the decline of civilizations, empires & societies,” posters scoffed at the idea of 3D printing their way to survival. “The only 3D printer useful in a survival situation is the one mounted between your buttocks,” Redditor DrScrubbington told me. “You can coat caltrops with it to give people infections or you can compost it to grow food with.”
On /r/postcollapse, the forum for post-doomsday survival tips, Redditors were even snarkier: “I mean, you’ll be able to make anything you need, just as soon as your Amazon order is Fedexed to your post-collapse bunker,” NoMoreNicksLeft joked.
Steve Spence, a technologist and prepper who’s lived off-grid for nearly a decade, thinks these accusations fail to address the energy industry’s progress toward sustainable, reliable power sources over the last few decades. His home in South Carolina is powered by wind turbines and solar panels. Once he picks up a few animals, he plans to install a methane generator.
Spence takes issue with preppers who boast that they could survive a disaster in 2016 without technology’s assistance. Personally, he controls and oversees his home, situated in a hurricane zone, with arduinos, “self-contained, inter-communicating microprocessors.” Surveying his property for threats, monitoring the weather and keeping his home cool against the South Carolina humidity are, to him, non-negotiable survival tactics that necessitate technology.
“If the power grid isn’t working, you can still run your prepping equipment on an off-grid system,” he said. “All you need is a charger to charge your batteries, solar or wind, a set of batteries to hold electricity, and an inverter. You’re your own power company.” Of course, Spence added, a 3D printer can easily run on an off-grid power source.
Accusations against technology as a prepping mainstay also overlook the fact that much of the prepping community lives online. Prepping forums, hosted on Reddit and in darker corners of the internet, are a crucial resource for knowledge-sharing. YouTube tutorials train preppers in everything from gardening to installing fencing.
Chad Huddleston, an anthropology professor at the Southern Illinois University who studies disaster preparedness communities, noted that “open-source ideas” form the basis of most pre-disaster tooling. Trading tricks like cheap bunker construction or effective hunting “is inherent in these groups.” 3D-printed, open-source hardware is not much of a leap from open-source ideas.
But Huddleston backtracked when it came to 3D printers.
“The preppers I know may consider such tech as a matter of prepping, but not as a tool to be used actively when adapting to rapidly changing conditions,” he said. “Their opinion would be that you should have already had those tools ready to go in your bag/car/bug out location.”
Sure, 3D printers may seem a little bourgeois against the background of societal collapse. But there’s one potential, if illegal use for the technology that many preppers can get behind: 3D-printed guns.
Cody Wilson, founder of Defense Distributed, has almost single-handedly generated a cult of fear around the concept. In the summer of 2012, enamored of Wikileaks’ open-source revolution, Wilson realized that he could fuel a potential shift in manufacturing with the promise of 3D-printed guns. Online, he would host gun designs for regular folks to download and print in their homes. No rules, no regulations.
A few months later, Wilson, who Wired once ranked as the 5th most dangerous person on the internet, printed a few small, green pistol parts on a 3D printer he found on Ebay. Driving out to the Texas hill country, he filmed himself shooting the 3D-printed gun at a few targets. The video went viral, sparking a chain reaction of fear and excitement across the web.
Wilson founded Defense Distributed to disseminate his digital firearm designs. The pistol was called the Liberator. Wilson began producing $1,200 CNC mills dubbedGhost Gunners that would print lower receivers attachable to AR-15 rifles.
The response from the prepper community was overwhelmingly positive. Without background checks, serial numbers, or significant waiting periods, the gun-to-person proximity would be reduced drastically. Preppers could remain under-the-radar and protect their person against doomsday enemies. For a drastically cheaper price, they could print as many guns as they wanted. So-called “Wiki Weapons” became a ubiquitous talking point on prepper blogs overnight.
Predictably, the government wasn’t thrilled about Wilson’s weapon hack. Since the firearms were plastic, they were imperceptible to metal detectors, in violation of theUS Undetectable Firearms Act. In May 2013, the State Department cracked down on Wilson’s Defense Distributed movement, demanding that gun blueprints be pulled off the internet. (Wilson is currently suing the State Department, arguing that the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls is violating their first amendment right to post files online).
“The government is saying this is an area of technical development that the public shouldn’t have access to,” Wilson said. “I say on the contrary. I think it’s essential to protect common people.”
Wilson says he has sold thousands of his CNC machines and makes $2 million in gross sales per year. Touring prepper shows and conventions, Wilson said that preppers throw down big bucks for survival equipment like guns and food supply.
But Wilson has also made enemies within the prepper community who think that his politics are too ostentatious.
“He put a bad taste in people’s mouths,” Mike told me. “They don’t want to be associated with people like that. They don’t want that kind of trouble. It’s a good way to get on a watch list.”
Sources interviewed noted that an ideological rift splits the greater 3D prepping community’s response to 3D-printed firearms. The generally liberal open-source community can seem at odds with the often conservative preparedness community, especially over the issue of guns. One side argues that guns are necessary for protecting your family; the other, that they should be heavily restricted, even uniformly banned.
For his part, Ray is sympathetic to Wilson, describing him as “just another guy who has values he believes in.” Since discovering the compatibility of prepping and 3D printing, Ray authored the book 3D Printing for Preparedness, of which he says hasn’t sold too many copies. At first, he was embarrassed to release it, since Doomsday Preppers sullied the name of his survival-minded brethren.
Ray has since moved onto 3D-printing food, which he says he’d like to keep separate from his preparedness efforts. He’s hesitant to argue that 3D-printed food could hold up against the apocalypse.
“For prepping, you can stick with dehydrated food.”