How 3-D printing could revolutionize war and foreign policy

January 5, 2015 by Eric Randolph
New printers that use metal, wood and fabric are set to become much more widely available—putting the engineering world on the cusp of major historical change

3D printing will revolutionize war and foreign policy, say experts, not only by making possible incredible new designs but by turning the defence industry—and possibly the entire global economy—on its head.

For many, 3D printing still looks like a gimmick, used for printing useless plastic figurines and not much else.

But with key patents running out this year, new printers that use metal, wood and fabric are set to become much more widely available—putting the engineering world on the cusp of major historical change.

The billion-dollar defence industry is at the bleeding edge of this innovation, with the US military already investing heavily in efforts to print uniforms, synthetic skin to treat battlewounds, and even food, said Alex Chausovsky, an analyst at IHS Technology.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have already invented "4D printing"—creating materials that change when they come into contact with elements such as water.

One day, that could mean things like printed uniforms that change colour depending on their environment.

In the real world, the baby steps are already being taken.

Late last year, British defence firm BAE Systems put the first printed metal part in a Tornado jet fighter.

The company recently put out an animated video showing where they think such humble beginnings could one day lead.

It imagined a plane printing another plane inside itself and then launching it from its undercarriage.

"It's long term, but it's certainly our end goal to manufacture an aerial vehicle in its entirety using 3D printing technology," Matt Stevens, who heads BAE's 3D printing division, told AFP.

Revolutionising war and politics

But the real revolution of 3D printing is less about the things you can make and more about where you make them.

Being able to take printers to a warzone promises a radical shake-up of combat and the defence industry, says Peter W Singer, an expert in future warfare at the New America Foundation.

A Liberator pistol appears next to the 3D printer on which its components were made on July 11, 2013

"Defence contractors want to sell you an item but also want to own the supply chain for 50 years," he says.

"But now you'll have soldiers in an austere outpost in somewhere like Afghanistan who can pull down the software for a spare part, tweak the design and print it out."

This could lead militaries to cut out private defence companies altogether. And by combining 3D printing with assembly line robotics, those that remain will be enormously streamlined.

That sort of disruption carries huge political implications in places like the United States where defence firms are purposefully spread around the country and support millions of jobs.

"The Pentagon and defence industry have an incredibly tough time with innovation, but you don't want to wait to lose a major battle before you do it," says Singer.

3D printing could even change , for instance by undermining sanctions.

"The US has sanctioned everything from fighter jet spare parts to oil equipment. 3D printing could turn sanctions—which have been a crucial part of foreign policy for a generation or more—into an antiquated notion," says Singer.

British defence firm BAE Systems put the first printed metal part in a Tornado jet fighter

Then there are the scarier prospects that come with reducing the barriers to arms manufacturing.

"Think of master bombmakers in the Middle East making new designs that look like everyday products or a lone wolf operator printing a plastic gun he can get past security at the White House," says Chausovsky.

But all of that may pale in comparison to the security risks that 3D printing could trigger by revolutionising economies.

If anyone can print retail goods, economies that rely on cheap factory labour to make things like clothes and toys may find themselves in deep trouble—with all the security consequences that go with that.

"If you want to know where the big threat of 3D printing is, think about how reliant China is on its low-cost merchandising sector," says Chausovsky.

'Can't drill a curved hole'

3D printing—invented in the 1980s—is much older than many realise.

The recent upsurge in interest is tied to the fact that patents on the original technology are expiring—opening the way for competition that will drive up quality and push down prices.

The first major patents to run out were in 2009 for a system that used plastics known as "fused deposition modelling".

But the next big ones, that expired in the first half of 2014, are related to "selective laser syntering" that prints metals such as aluminium, copper and steel, and with much greater definition.

And rather than working with solid lumps of metal, engineers can create complex new shapes that use much less material without losing any strength.

"You can't drill a curved hole," says Chausovsky. "With 3D , you're creating products that would never be possible with traditional methods.

The full implications are still hard to imagine.

"It's the first time in a very long time that there's been such a radical shake up in industrial engineering," says Stevens at BAE. "We're not just improving things—we're re-writing the rule book."

Explore further: Novel 3-D printing process enables metal additive manufacturing for consumer market

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alfie_null
5 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2015
While it's going to be a long time before this a problem, there's the usual technology advance vs. economy question: what happens to all those workers displaced? If they are no longer participating in the economy, the economy doesn't grow, it shrinks. There's no use in having lots of 3D printing if most people can't afford it because they are poorly employed and have no money. We can't all be doctors, lawyers or engineers. Or even the guy who sells 3D-printable designs (which would probably just get stolen and copied by others anyways).
scienceguy888
3 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2015
The other part of this new industrial revolution is the addition of robotics which will be part and parcel to making things for mere pennies. A 3D printer combined with a smart robot means one machine makes an object and the smart robot assembles it. If the demand goes up, the maker and building machines make more making and building machines. See where I am going with this?

Every industry will be deluged with machines replacing human labor. The point is how we respond will matter when we realize our identity should be what we make and offer the world, not what we do. The best use of this new technology will be green energy and space colonization.
cjn
4 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2015
3D Printing is going to destabilize economies and governments if it isn't integrated effectively. The technology could support true economic independence (and thus end interdependence), which could lead to greater conflict. By displacing the workforce, idle hands are created without the ability to sustain themselves, but also with the ability to manufacture weapons at will.

Its going to be interesting, to say the least.
krundoloss
not rated yet Jan 05, 2015
If there can be made a standard set of materials that all 3-D Printers could use, and complete objects (tools, electronics, etc.) could be made from this same set of materials, then we could crank up a market for objects design and people would buy things like they do on iTunes, download it and print it out. Great Tech!

But, as others have said, how can we enjoy this new technology without destroying entire industries and ruining economies?

The above questions has been plaguing every major innovation, because we are reaching a point where technology is allowing fewer workers to accomplish more and more, eliminating jobs all the time. How can economies work when there are just not enough jobs? There needs to be a system by which people can contribute to society and benefit from that contribution, even if what they are doing is not a "job".

It just baffles me how to get over this notion of "hey don't advance any more because people wont have jobs to do".
pepe2907
not rated yet Jan 06, 2015
Printing guns? What about printing nanomachines? Self replicating ones. Printing artificial lifeforms? It easily may change the meaning of "weapon" and the ways it's used.

Also there are people saying patents are good for economy etc. etc. and there's a clear contradiction with that. 30 years lost. This economy of cheap manufacturing of todays wouldn't even be created.
But then, in the light of what was said - it may be not so bad after all.
kochevnik
not rated yet Jan 06, 2015
While it's going to be a long time before this a problem, there's the usual technology advance vs. economy question
Why care about the economy when you can print everything you need?
gcraig1988
2 / 5 (1) Jan 06, 2015
RE: Displaced Workers

It has been argued since the industrial revolution that machines would displace works. While it is true that some types of workers are no longer needed, that does not damn them to a life of unemployment. In fact, machines make workers more productive per capita. This allows them to earn better wages.

For example, consider hiring 50 guys with shovels vs. two guys with back hoes to dig a swimming pool. The two guys become nearly as valuable as 50. Also, the pool becomes less expensive. This means that more people can afford pools, there fore more pools mean more guys operating backhoes will be hired. Each of these operators earns a skilled persons wage as compared to shovel operators who get paid very low wages.

History has proven that machines so not cause unemployment. It never has. This is a myth that many have fallen prey to.
cjn
not rated yet Jan 06, 2015
gcraig
RE: Displaced Workers

For example, consider hiring 50 guys with shovels vs. two guys with back hoes to dig a swimming pool. The two guys become nearly as valuable as 50. Also, the pool becomes less expensive. This means that more people can afford pools, there fore more pools mean more guys operating backhoes will be hired. Each of these operators earns a skilled persons wage as compared to shovel operators who get paid very low wages.

History has proven that machines so not cause unemployment. It never has. This is a myth that many have fallen prey to.


Except for those 48 people who are now unemployed. There are a limited number of pools to build, and now a lot of excess labor.

There is a difference between machine-enhanced labor and machine-replaced labor. If you could print everything of necessity, the manufacturing jobs actually do not exist, as they are unnecessary. 3D printing and its evolution is not analogous to powered looms or power tools.
EyeNStein
5 / 5 (1) Jan 07, 2015
Why would 3D printed metal components be such a massive deal when CNC milling has been around for decades and produces a better product than sintering and in a wider range of alloys.

3DP is definitely a great new tool in the toolbox and can do some shapes or items which couldn't be done before. (Like plastic wrenches in space). This article is 75% hype and 25% news.
EyeNStein
not rated yet Jan 07, 2015
Shame they couldn't 3D print the F-35 prototype and decide its a lemon before they flushed 300Billion$ down the defence procurement toilet.
Its not surprising they are desperately searching for ways to defend without overspend.

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