Scary new world of 3D printing

06 January 2015 - 02:13 By AFP

3D printing will revolutionise war and foreign policy, say experts, not only by making incredible new designs possible 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 plastic figurines and not much else. But with important patents running out this year, new printers that use metal, wood and fabric will become more widely available - putting the engineering world on the cusp of historical change.

The defence industry is at the leading edge of this innovation, and the US military was already investing in efforts to print uniforms, synthetic skin to treat battle wounds, even food, said Alex Chausovsky, an analyst at IHS Technology.

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have invented "4D printing" - creating materials that change when they come into contact with elements such as water. One day that could mean things such as printed uniforms that change colour depending on their environment.

Late last year, UK defence firm BAE Systems put the first printed metal part in a Tornado jet fighter. It recently put out an animated video showing where it thinks things could one day lead. It imagined a plane printing another plane inside itself 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," said Matt Stevens, who heads BAE's 3D printing division.

3D printing also revolutionises where you can make things.

"Now you'll have soldiers in an austere outpost who can pull down the software for a spare part, tweak the design and print it out," said Peter W Singer of the New America Foundation.

This could lead armies to cut out private defence companies altogether. By combining 3D printing with assembly-line robotics, those who remain will be enormously streamlined. That carries huge political implications in places like the US, where defence firms support millions of jobs.

Then there are the scarier prospects . "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," said 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," said Chausovsky.

The full implications are hard to imagine. "We're not just improving things - we're rewriting the rule book," said Stevens.