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Homemade Weapons Just The Start Of 3D Printing's Potential Risks, Analyst Says

A close-up view of a single-shot pistol that can be made entirely from plastic parts forged with a 3D printer. (Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images)
A close-up view of a single-shot pistol that can be made entirely from plastic parts forged with a 3D printer. (Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images)

Some predict 3D printing could revolutionize everything from manufacturing and medicine, as more people get access to technology that lets them cheaply make their own parts and products.

But the same technology that might one day custom-print heart valves or lead to astronauts manufacturing their own tools aboard the International Space Station could also be used to print bombs and explosives, or make it possible for countries like North Korea and Iran to evade international sanctions.

That’s the conclusion of a new paper published this month by RAND. Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd speaks with Troy Smith (@troy_d_smith), an associate economist at RAND and co-author of the paper, about security risks 3D printing poses.

“Right now, if you go into a secure building, you can’t take a weapon with you,” Smith says. “Whereas once this technology advances, all you need is a digital blueprint and access to a printer, and you could have a gun in a place like an airport or a secure government facility. The technology’s not there yet, but it could be pretty quickly.”

Interview Highlights

On concerns about hackers sabotaging industrial printers and altering designs

“This technology is being used for things like airplane parts, and other things that we really depend on to be made well. So a team actually from Johns Hopkins [University] in June 2016, they hacked into the computer, changed a little design on a propeller for a drone — it was undetectable. The drone flew for about a minute and 43 seconds before the propeller shattered and the drone kind of fell to the ground. So that’s the kind of thing that we would be worried about, and the ability to insert these flaws into these mechanical products. … Now we have the ability for digital to become physical. And so little design flaws can make a big difference in critical parts.”

On the potential for countries to use 3D printing to bypass sanctions

“A good example is Iran, which is also pretty timely right now. So in January 2017, they had a delivery of an Airbus A321, Iran’s first new Western-made aircraft in several decades. So Iran Air has traditionally been pretty unreliable — some of the passengers even referred to it in terms of ‘flying coffins,’ because they couldn’t get these parts from the West because of sanctions. So with 3D printing, now you can print these parts — obsolescent parts or parts that you can’t get elsewhere — and potentially get around the sanctions regimes, which means that the United States and other Western powers will have much less control in these areas.”

On 3D printing’s benefits despite these risks

“We definitely think that it’s a net positive — and that’s one of the things we’re kind of worried about. We wanted to start this conversation of potential security risks so that we could start thinking about them now and address them, so that we can get to the positive benefits of the technology. The one thing that we’re worried about is that there’s a danger in overreacting, overregulating and smothering what could be a new era of innovation.”

On what’s being done to address 3D printing’s security risks

“That’s a great question, and an area where we think that we need a lot more research. You could do controls on printing materials, you could do registration of printers, you could build digital signatures into the items that are printed. So at least you could attribute it to the source once it has been printed. There’s also in terms of the flaws, there’s a team that, they actually created an algorithm to listen to the printers as they’re printing to see whether any flaws were being printed into the products that they were printing. So that’s a potential promising area of research as well.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.