The phenomenon of 3D printing is relatively new, and its popularity is on the rise. Those that claim it is a fad aren’t looking closely enough at what is happening. Though it’s unpredictable whether 3D printing will revolutionize society the way the internet did, this form of technology holds the potential to revolutionize the manufacturing industry, much as the internet did for communication and information.
3D printing is a method of manufacturing in itself. A code is keyed into the printer, which the machine then downloads. This download and the materials of the object are combined in the printer, ultimately creating the object in a fully functional form. Essentially, the printer prints out each layer on top of one another, until a 3D object is produced.
This process has already been experimented with by several industries. Objects have been 3D printed for clothing, bio-mechanical parts, mechanical parts, sculptures, and firearms. Even NASA is considering developing 3D printed parts for some of their rockets. It’s no wonder that there are speculations that 3D printing will completely overhaul the manufacturing industry someday.
But what does all of this mean for the international security community?
One field that 3D printing has the potential to seriously disrupt is the manufacturing of weapons. A handgun and, more recently from Canada, a rifle, have been 3D printed. On August 6th, a 3D-printed rifle was fired 14 times before the plastic broke under the pressure. If the technology of 3D printing has managed to shift from creating a handgun to a rifle within a few months, where will this technology take the manufacturing of weapons in one year? What about over the next ten?
A more concerning question is whether 3D printers being used as weapons manufacturers will enhance the ability for insurgents to attain weapons. There is no certainty that weaponry beyond handhelds will not be developed through these machines.
A benefit for organizations like NATO is that this process could reduce the cost of attaining weapons. For NASA, when they used the 3D printer to create the injector of a rocket, it cost 70% of the amount it did to manufacture it traditionally. These sorts of spending cuts could considerably transform militaries and allow more spending to go to more pressing programs like cyber security, without reducing the output of weapons.
But at what price does this lowering of costs come? We are talking about the potential for bombs, maybe even tanks, to be downloaded with some blueprints and a piece of machinery. And not just one – multiple weapon systems could conceivably be printed, as long as there is enough material. As with every technological advancement, when we think about the potential benefits for militaries, a consequential thought is the fear of what it could result in if insurgents should gain this technology.
There is no doubt that the law has grey zones, but how it will rise to mediate these sorts of issues is difficult to consider, mainly because the outcomes do not look great. This conversation needs to begin now, before it becomes too late. Moving back into the scope that we are currently working with, these weapons will need to be licensed. Yet they open a potential avenue for individuals to gain these weapons without a license should they so choose. The development of weapons through 3D technology remains unclear, prompting a long list of hypotheticals and questions (similar to the prospective outlined above). Realistically, these questions cannot be fully answered at this stage of the technology.
And yet the time to tackle these questions is now, before the next advancement is developed. Considerations of a 4D technology, one that could continue to evolve after being downloaded and printed, shows that technology is not going to stop developing just because it is difficult to legislate. So perhaps the approach to take is not to answer these questions immediately, but rather prepare for a worst-case scenario. The security community should strategize safeguards that can be put in place in case insurgents do manage to gain this technology, and in case the technology gains the capability to produce sophisticated weapons. Keeping guns away from an enemy has been a difficult enough task in the history of war – who would have thought that a possible threat in the future would include a printer and blueprints?