3D printing or additive manufacturing is ongoing revolution in manufacturing with its potential to fabricate any complex object and is being utilized from aerospace components to human organs, textiles, metals, buildings and even food. Additive manufacturing, is defined by ASTM International as the process of joining materials together, layer by layer, based on three-dimensional model data.
3D printing can make military equipment faster accelerating product development and with less cost than other processes. It increases design possibilities, enhances the speed of innovation, and offers an alternative for creating shapes closer to what an engineer might need, with fewer constraints.
3D printing is revolutionizing defence by printing small components to full drones on naval vessels, replacement parts for fighter aircrafts to printing ammunition. Substantial improvements have been made in 3D printing with the fabrication of 3D objects from metals, ceramics, plastics, and even multi-material capabilities. The first gun was printed back in 2013 (Walther, 2015; Greenberg, 2013); by May 2017, researchers at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center had successfully designed, printed, and fired a grenade launcher (Hodgkins, 2017).
However, the proliferation of 3D printers means that anyone with 3D designs could be able to manufacture sophisticated weapons. Criminals and terrorists could now make their own undetectable firearms in private, using weapon’s blueprints online or hacking them.
A new RAND Corporation paper suggests additive manufacturing could benefit military adversaries, violent extremists and even street criminals, who could produce their own weapons for use and sale. 3D printing technology is also susceptible to hacking, which could allow sabotage by hackers who maliciously instruct 3D printers to introduce flawed instructions or algorithms into mission-critical parts of airplanes, according to the paper.
After downloading free designs from the web, the terrorists can print a multitude of swarming unmanned drones, pack them with explosives to carry out a devastating attack.
AM will also make it easier for homegrown dissidents and “lone wolves” to print weapons quickly in locations where they previously would not have had access to them (e.g., schools, government buildings, airports).
“Lone-wolf attacks may become more lethal when individuals have ready access to 3D printers,” said Trevor Johnston, lead author and an associate political scientist at RAND, a nonpartisan research organization. “Even in countries like the United States, where gun control laws have done little to restrict access to semi-automatic weapons, additive manufacturing could increase the risk of violence and murder.”
Threat of terrorists using 3D printed guns
New York City’s counterterrorism chief called the threat posed by 3D printed guns “truly unbelievable.” The idea that we have fought … [for] a law where people who buy guns have to undergo a universal background check — that took years to get done,” Miller said. “And we’re still [fighting to close loopholes on that law] even though we have a school shooting or a massacre every other week.”
“The idea of while we are fighting to close those loopholes, to then open the greatest loophole of all, which is buy a $2,000 printer and you can make as many guns as you want that aren’t subject to regulation; that don’t have to have a serial number, that don’t have to be traceable, that may not be made out of metal and can defeat certain metal detectors — we’re taking a turn there from the ridiculous to something that is totally unbelievable.” he continued.
As the technology currently stands, it is extremely arduous and expensive to print a gun. The 3D printers that print effective firearms can cost up to millions of dollars, and the process takes upwards of 90 hours. 3D printers that cost a few thousand dollars are often only capable of printing plastic guns, which are prone to shattering.
RAND report Additive Manufacturing: Awesome Potential, Disruptive Threat
RAND are looking to the mid-future of 2040, and at some of the forces that will shape our path from here to there. The with aim is to seek new approaches to identify and assess the impact of several trends over the coming decades—political, technological, social, demographic—and to generate some useful guidance for policymakers.
The simplicity and low cost of AM machines, combined with the scope of their potential creations, could profoundly alter global and local economies and affect international security, says report.
Additive manufacturing may also indirectly support the survival and rise of pariah states like North Korea, which could avoid the costs of withdrawing from the international community by producing complex items domestically, skirting international sanctions.
From an economic perspective, by decentralizing manufacturing individuals and firms may choose to produce locally rather than importing goods. 3D printing could therefore weaken international connections currently sustained by complex, multi-country supply chains, the authors conclude. That in turn may create upheaval in labor markets — and subsequent social conflict.
“Unemployment, isolation and alienation of middle and low-skilled laborers may be exacerbated by additive manufacturing, potentially leading to societal unrest in both developed and developing countries,” said Troy Smith, an author on the paper and an associate economist at RAND. “The potential security implications of large masses of unemployed, disconnected people are substantial.”
The authors posit that the relative risk and cost of future threats will depend in part on the evolution and regulation of additive manufacturing hardware (printers), raw materials and software (intellectual property). Threat prevention will be more effective if focused on material controls.
By limiting supplies of rare or dangerous raw materials, regulators can at least ensure that some of the most destructive weapons (e.g., nuclear or dirty bombs) do not become readily accessible. By monitoring online communities, law enforcement may be able to curtail digital exchanges of lethal creations. Unfortunately, the efforts of domestic law enforcement may be ineffectual on this front, the authors write. Alternatively, law enforcement may themselves hack additive manufacturing software to disrupt potential attacks or limit their destruction.
In all likelihood, these preventive measures will not stop the spread of new risks connected to 3D printing, according to the paper. There is little that regulation, export controls, treaties and law enforcement can do to fully prevent a motivated, well-financed, organized actor from eventually acquiring new technology. As such, policymakers should particularly focus on measures that mitigate the potential impact and cost of these future threats. While fraught with risks, policymakers should begin to address the hard security questions that additive manufacturing will bring.
The paper, “Additive Manufacturing: Awesome Potential, Disruptive Threat,” is part of a broader effort to envision critical security challenges in the world of 2040, considering the effects of political, technological, social and demographic trends that will shape those security challenges in the coming decades.