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Addressing 3D printing export control challenges

Posted 16 February 2016 · Add Comment

Darren Travers, Senior Account Manager, AEB (International) looks at not only the developing benefits of 3D print technology but also the associated regulatory risks and export control challenges.

Developments of 3D print technology over recent years have been fascinating and the areas of application still don’t cease to amaze: aircraft parts, shoes, clothing, hip joints, dental crowns, hearing aid shells – you name it – all produced already with 3D print technology.

A mechanical engineer in Washington DC even won a $125,000 grant from NASA last year to build a prototype 3D printer designed to produce nutritious food for astronauts.

With mass production based on 3D printing still a long way off, it is hard to gauge at this point what exactly the final impact of this new technology on traditional manufacturing methods will be.

This is not limited to the actual process of manufacturing itself, but also includes collateral impacts like shifts in global transport volumes, types of materials shipped, and regional production centres.

Benefits of 3D printing are defined by high levels of customer centricity and include flexible product customisation options and the opportunity to produce goods virtually anywhere. However, as with other technologies, there are also potential negative implications of 3D printing, and while developments already allow consumers to purchase affordable 3D desktop printers for home-use, official standards and regulations still lag behind and a comprehensive, regulatory framework is still missing.

This concerns especially businesses working with sensitive materials – such as military items and dual-use goods. Exports and transfers of such materials are subject to strict governmental controls, and various UK, EU, and US regulations must be adhered to. Such controls can also extend to communication, documentation, and software of corresponding sensitive items.

So what does it mean for such severely controlled environments if goods can suddenly be produced anywhere? What steps are being taken to protect the digital information about 3D printing blueprints for prototypes and components by aerospace and defence companies or the nuclear industry? 

Back in 2013 in the US, an open source organisation called Defense Distributed published blueprints for producing a gun with 3D print technology online – a move that was immediately criticised by anti-gun campaigners and weapons manufacturers alike.

Also, in a paper published in the autumn 2015 edition of Strategic Trade Review, the author (Dr Grant Christopher, a research fellow at the International Centre for Security Analysis at King’s College London) examines the possibility of producing a special type of steel with 3D printing methods to enrich uranium. 

The latest example made headlines at the end of January 2016, when Cody Wilson, the founder of Defense Distributed, announced his plans to release new blueprints publicly online. This time they would include codes for manufacturing semi-automatic rifles with 3D print technology – for just £100. This raised new concerns, of course, regarding the easy access this would provide for terrorist groups wanting to equip themselves with powerful weapons. Wilson is currently in the midst of a legal battle with the US government over the respective 3D code for this. 

It seems a double-edged sword: while many 3D print technology advances continue to captivate our imagination, the latest developments are also somewhat scary. It is clear that a comprehensive regulatory framework is urgently needed to provide for a secure environment and to mitigate exposed risks regarding officially controlled and sensitive materials. It is definitely an important area for export control officers in aerospace and defence businesses to keep an eye on and monitor further developments.

 

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