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Not a day goes by without a story on a new advance or application in 3-D printing technology. While the technology promises cost and manufacturing benefits for many consumer, industrial, and medical parts, there’s concerns the technology might also get into the hands of adversaries building weapons to use against countries.

That’s the conclusion of a new RAND Corporation paper that suggests the access to additive manufacturing could enable military adversaries, violent extremists and even street criminals to easily produce their own weapons for use and sale.

Moreover, the study noted that 3-D printing technology is susceptible to hacking, which could enable hackers to maliciously instruct 3-D printers to introduce flawed instructions or algorithms into mission-critical parts of airplanes.

More frightening is the notion that individual terrorists could potentially be greater security threat because they have easier access to 3-D printers.

"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, in the report. "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."

Additive manufacturing could also undermine the economic sanctions that countries impose on other countries perceived as a security threat, according to the study. For instance, some nations could use 3-D printing to produce goods locally, thus negating the need for them to import them from other countries and thus skirt international sanctions that sustain complex, multi-country supply chains. In turn, this could create upheaval in labor markets and lead to 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."

In order to mitigate these potential threats, peace-loving nations will have to consider some control over the supply chain regulating the development and availability of additive manufacturing hardware, raw materials, and software. The report says supplies of rare or dangerous raw materials need to be controlled to at least ensure that some of the most destructive weapons (e.g., nuclear or dirty bombs) do not become readily accessible.

Unfortunately, the report says all the preventive measures in the world will not stop the spread of new risks connected to 3D printing. In the end, individuals or groups determined to acquire new technology will not be completely thwarted by export controls, treaties and law enforcement. Still, 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.

 

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