3D Printing Could Disrupt Labor Markets and National Security

For Release

May 9, 2018

While advances in additive manufacturing offer potential breakthroughs in prosthetic arms, jet engine parts, and a host of other products, 3D printing, as it is known, may also disrupt traditional labor markets and exacerbate existing security threats from violent actors.

A new RAND Corporation paper suggests additive manufacturing could benefit military adversaries, violent extremists and even street criminals, who could produce their own weapons for use and sale. As this technology further develops, and without proper controls, violent actors might be able to replicate more sophisticated weapons systems, print lethal drones, and even produce jamming devices or cheap decoys that disrupt intelligence collection.

3D printing technology is also susceptible to sabotage by hackers who could develop the means to instruct 3D printers to introduce flawed instructions or algorithms into mission-critical parts of airplanes, according to the paper.

“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.

Additive manufacturing may also indirectly allow countries under international sanctions, like North Korea and Iran, to produce complex items domestically, mitigating the economic impact of sanctions.

From an economic perspective, by decentralizing manufacturing, individuals and firms may choose to produce more products locally rather than importing them. 3D printing could therefore weaken international connections currently sustained by complex, multi-country supply chains, the authors conclude. That in turn may create upheaval in labor markets—and potentially intensify social conflict.

“Unemployment, isolation and alienation of middle and low-skilled laborers may be exacerbated by additive manufacturing together with automation and artificial intelligence,” said Troy Smith, an author on the paper and an associate economist at RAND.

The paper finds the relative risk and cost of future threats will depend in part on the evolution and regulation of additive manufacturing hardware (printers), raw materials and software (intellectual property). Threat prevention will be more effective if focused on material controls.

By limiting supplies of rare or dangerous raw materials, regulators can at least ensure that some of the most destructive weapons (e.g., nuclear dual use technologies) do not become readily accessible. By monitoring online communities, law enforcement may be able to curtail digital exchanges of prohibited technologies but these measures can only contain the spread of such technologies for so long. Alternatively, law enforcement may themselves hack additive manufacturing software to disrupt potential attacks or limit their destruction.

The paper, “Additive Manufacturing in 2040: Powerful Enabler, 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.

Funding for the Security 2040 initiative was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

The research was conducted within the RAND Center for Global Risk and Security, which works across RAND to develop multi-disciplinary research and policy analysis dealing with systemic risks to global security. The center draws on RAND's expertise to complement and expand RAND research in many fields, including security, economics, health and technology.

About the RAND Corporation

The RAND Corporation is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.