3D print and risks

Export controls and 3D print: pizzas, body parts, and weapons

3D printing is becoming more commonplace as the technology becomes cheaper. It could bring about significant changes in export controls.

An endless variety of 3D-printed goods

The potential applications for 3D printing seem to be limitless – everything from printing shoes to printing automotive parts. There have been plenty of interesting and diverse ways in which this technology has been used over the last few years.

You might already have seen reports about the mechanical engineer that won a $125,000 grant from NASA to build a prototype 3D printer that could print pizzas. Or, how about printing human ears and other body parts?

Given the easy access to cheap off-the-shelf 3D printers, it seems almost inevitable that it will become a central part of our lives in the future. Some of you might already have read our white paper on the relevance of 3D printing to supply chains. It will undoubtedly bring about many changes including a decrease in transportation and with this – hopefully – a reduction in our environmental footprint as a result.

Potential impacts on export controls

I first became consciously aware of the potential impact of 3D printing on export controls when I heard about the company that published blueprints online for printing a gun. This is pretty disturbing from a gun violence perspective but also makes one think about other products that could be printed – especially export controlled items.

3D printing is becoming more widely used in, for example, the aerospace and defense sector. Companies such as Boeing, BAE Systems, Raytheon, Rolls Royce, and GE are already using it for prototypes and a small number of production components. This highlights the importance of controlling blueprints for 3D-printed components given that digital information could easily be used by someone else to produce a physical item.

Concerns over nuclear proliferation

Similar concerns relate to the nuclear industry. In an interesting paper in the autumn edition of Strategic Trade Review (see page 18), Dr Grant Christopher highlighted the challenges now posed by 3D printing to nuclear export controls. Specialist 3D printers (capable of handling maraging steel) and CAD files for nuclear components need to be tightly controlled to prevent potential nuclear proliferation.

But also a force for good

This is all serious stuff. And maybe it’s not good to dwell too much on all these worrying aspects of 3D printing. So – just to show the potential for good – here is a heart-warming story about a two-legged kitten that has been learning to walk with the help of a 3D printed wheelchair.

3D printing is certainly food (non-3D-printed, of course… ;-)) for thought… If you have any comments or remarks, I’d be happy to exchange with you via LinkedIn.