Friday, August 29, 2014

(The Big Disrupt) 3d Printing: The dark side of the 3d printing revolution

The press covering the rise of the 3D printer has been universally positive and for all intents and purposes should as the benefits provided by the technology in a number of fields particularly design, prosthetics and medicine. However, the blanket praise for the 3D printer and its many positive implication is washing over the truly terrifying consequences of its advent

Last year we got a glimpse into the bold new world offered by the 3D printer thanks to law student and anarchist Cody Wilson’s Defense Distributed making then using the first 3D printed gun named “the liberator”. The implications of the liberator are complex and varied but the most concerning of which is that not only can the 3D printer make a gun that fires but the means to produce one is widely available.

Needless to say, governments across the globe were less than pleased with the prospect of 3D printed guns ending up in the hands of their citizens as the U.S State Department, not surprisingly, “through its Office of Defense Trade Controls Compliance, forced Wilson to take down the online blueprints for the "Liberator" and all the other 3D-printed weapon parts that he has made available online”[1].

However, Wilson, less than pleased that the liberator blueprints were now offline, realized that the damage had been done. The blueprints to the liberator had already been downloaded in the hundreds of thousands and has gone viral and more importantly, global since. As a result, the Liberator has shown up across the world and in May 27 year old Japanese Yoshitomo Imura made history and became the country’s first arrest for being in possession of five liberators, two of which being able to fire live rounds[2].

Whatever is said about the Liberator no one can deny that it was a ground-breaking and terrifying innovation in the manufacture of weapons and with all innovations since the beginning of time, more are sure to follow and thanks to Texas based Solid Concepts, they did. According to the Guardian the Texas based custom manufacturer “replicated the parts of a classic Browning 1911 pistol - standard issue for the US armed forces until 1985 - using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), and can now offer 3D printed gun parts to any “qualifying customer” within five days”[3].

Innovations by Defense Distributed and Solid Concepts in the manufacture of weapons has shown the darker side of the 3D printer and all it’s terrifying possibilities but their ambitions for weapons manufacture using the 3D printer pale in comparison with the US Army and large weapon manufacturers bid to exploit the 3D printer for their own ends.

Lockheed Martin, major supplier of the US Army, is looking at where they can make use of the 3D printer to lower the cost attached in making military grade satellites. According to 3Ders “Lockheed executives expect additive manufacturing, or 3D printing could help to reduce cost, cycle time and material waste. 60 percent of its satellites relies on outside suppliers, Lockheed says its engineers are evaluating which satellite components could be 3D printed in-house”[4].The company has already made use of the technology on it other products such as it interplanetary juno aircraft and is planning to use the 3D printer “to build propulsion tanks”[5].

Along with making their satellites cheaper to make, the 3D printer may make Lockheed satellites more efficient as “the light-weighted satellite would allow the government to pack on more sensors, or launch satellites on smaller, less expensive rockets”[6]However, The US army is looking to use the 3D printer for the deadliest weapon of them all, nuclear warheads. Nuclear warheads are notoriously expensive to make and even more costly to maintain but with the advent of the 3D printer, warheads, just like Lockheed Martin’s satellites and tanks, become cheaper and potentially more efficient instruments of death.

According Motherboard’s Jordan Pearson “warheads using 3D-printed components could be designed to be more compact in order to pack in additional payloads, sensors, and safety mechanisms” which makes an already terrifying weapon just that bit more menacing. However the terror the doesn’t end there as Pearson points out “Planning for printed parts in the design process will also allow the army to precisely engineer the blast radiuses of warheads for maximum effect”[7]

What this means is that not only has the US military made the nuclear warhead cheaper to make but potentially a game changer in future wars as they become operationally effective in military missions abandoning their traditional role as a deterrent to other states.  What this all means in the wider perspective is while the 3d printer is one of the better innovations of the last 20 years, it may just be responsible for greater aggression among states as it weakens one of the main disincentives that prevent war, the exorbitant cost of prosecuting one.

The ballooning cost of war has been one of the major factors of why wars since the World War Two have gotten smaller and less deadly. It’s also why wars aren't as protracted as was before as long term wars cost money as the US Army, to its detriment, has found out the hardest way possible in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But the with advent of the 3D printer, war may become more protracted, cheaper, and deadlier than they've ever been which may produce wry smiles in the pentagon but trepidation just about everywhere else.

In sum, with the advent of the 3D printer, anything is possible and this fact is probably the most sobering and terrifying thought of them all.

[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid

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