Additive Manufacturing and Future Security Threats | Web version

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May 10, 2018

National Security

Additive Manufacturing and Future Security Threats

Abstract map of earth with futuristic, technological details, image by monsitj/Getty Images; logo by Pete Soriano/RAND Corporation

Additive manufacturing (AM)--colloquially known as 3D printing--refers to various methods for creating three-dimensional structures out of plastics, metals, polymers, and other materials that can be sprayed through a nozzle or aggregated in a vat. The spread of AM will bring with it both incredible benefits and new risks. This RAND Perspective found that policymakers should be concerned about the potential for this technology to affect weapons proliferation and create national security concerns through economic dislocation.

On the international level, AM has the potential to level the playing field between competitors and attenuate asymmetric advantages that some nations, such as the United States, currently enjoy. As AM proliferates, both export controls and sanctions could become far less effective as sanctioned states use AM to replace or substitute for sanctioned goods.

In addition to manufacturing weapons, violent extremist organizations may use AM to produce cheap decoys and jamming devices to disrupt signals intelligence collection. And lone wolf attackers will be able to draw on the vast resources available online to print weapons of choice.

As AM technology advances, fewer workers might be necessary to produce the same amount of output. Unemployment, isolation, and alienation of middle- and low-skilled laborers could be exacerbated, potentially leading to societal unrest with security implications in both developed and developing countries.

To prevent the threat of proliferation of AM weapons, regulators could limit supplies of rare or dangerous raw materials. Additionally, law enforcement might be able to curtail digital exchanges of lethal creations by monitoring online communities.

To mitigate the costs of future threats, policymakers could require new or advanced printers to be registered online or receive regular updates, without which the devices would lose some functionality. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies could exploit AM software to disrupt potential attacks. To mitigate the effects of economic dislocation, programs that assist displaced workers and other populations disrupted by AM could be funded through increased taxation of automated industries.

For state authorities unable to prevent or disrupt an attack, attribution and accountability remain a last recourse. Regulatory standards could require that printers encode a unique ID in their products, and more restrictive controls on materials could further help attribution.

This Perspective is the third in a series of RAND’s Security 2040 initiative, a self-funded project that explores future threats and opportunities that policymakers and others might encounter in coming decades.

Read the full Perspective»

Read the digtial article »

For questions or to discuss this work, please contact Kurt Card.

RAND Congressional Resources Staff

Jayme Fuglesten
Director, Office of Congressional Relations

Kurt Card
Legislative Analyst

RAND Office of Congressional Relations
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