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Is 3D Printing a Security Threat?

3D printing will likely be highly disruptive to traditional manufacturing sectors and other parts of the economy, but a new report from RAND indicates the technology may cause other types of disruptions in the economy. According to Additive Manufacturing in 2040: Powerful Enabler, Disruptive Threat, 3D printers may pose a risk to personal, national and international security.

According to the report, the use of 3D printing could help empower hostile nations, and potentially create vulnerabilities that could leave designers and manufacturers open to sabotage or theft. According to RAND:

“The same technology that might one day custom-print heart valves can just as easily produce gun parts. The same machines that allow astronauts on the international space station to print their own tools might also help a state like North Korea print military or industrial equipment to get around international sanctions.”

The four primary threats identified in the report include:

1. Hacked Printers: Hackers could use malicious code to alter blueprints or design files that could lead to potentially hazardous flaws in the final printed objects.

“Right now, if you have a cyber hack, then, worst-case scenario, your information gets compromised and you have to cancel a credit card or fight some kind of identity theft,” said Troy Smith, an associate economist at RAND and co-author of the paper. “I don’t want to minimize that. But with digital becoming physical, you could implant weaknesses into airplanes, into military tanks, into buildings. You could target people by implanting some kind of flaw that causes their personal devices to critically malfunction.” ​​​​​​​

The U.S. Army developed this 3D-printed grenade launcher. Image: U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center

2. Criminals/Terrorists: The U.S. Army has already designed a printable grenade launcher that fires 3D-printed grenades. Analysts are worried that criminal and terrorist organizations will be able to literally print their own weapons, explosive components and other items.

In fact, on June 29, the U.S. government settled a lawsuit against it that effectively makes it legal to distribute part models that allow people to 3D print guns.

3. Lost Jobs: 3D printing could upend the work of skilled craftsmen and specialist machine shops, since the devices can more easily create complex geometries out of a variety of materials. The “complexity for free” aspect of 3D printing could lead to additional job losses in manufacturing.

Predictions vary on this. The World Economic Forum thinks that 3D printing and other technologies could eliminate millions of jobs around the world over the next five years. But some studies have found that 3D printing could spur a new industrial revolution domestically as the advantage of cheap labor is eliminated.

4. New International Order: A number of international bodies like the WTO and United Nations rely on sanctions to keep rogue states in line. But what if those countries could get around such sanctions by quickly printing items that they can no longer import?

In addition, 3D printing could eliminate as much as a quarter of cross-border trade by 2060, according to ING. That would have a dramatic impact on international relations and global supply chains.

According to RAND: “(3D printing has) the potential to dramatically disrupt the prevailing state system and international order.”

Source: RAND

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