As Do-It-Yourself Manufacturing Emerges, Experts Consider Security Risks

As 3-D printers have become cheaper and more capable, they are being used to make everything from toys to engine parts to prosthetic hands. They also are opening up a new era of do-it-yourself manufacturing in which everyone — even a terrorist — can be a product designer.

A 3D printer at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C. prints an object from | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

That is one of the dilemmas experts discussed in a 2 May session on emerging technologies and national security at the 39th annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.

Christopher Williams, a specialist on 3-D printing at Virginia Tech, described the excitement surrounding the field as it has moved out of the research lab and into the real world of manufacturing and commerce.

"This is the democratization of manufacturing," Williams said. "It's your market. You make it just for you." One popular 3-D printer costs less than $1,000 and can make copies of itself. Advances in this technology will further reduce the cost of ownership, Williams said, and 3-D printers could become as commonplace as the traditional paper-based household printer.

In 3-D printing — or additive manufacturing, as it is called — a computer-directed device lays down successive layers of material in different shapes to create a finished object. The additive approach uses less material than the old "subtractive" manufacturing methods of cutting and drilling raw materials. And each item can be custom designed without costly retooling.

With the promise of cheap, transformative manufacturing come questions about how the technology could be misused, however. Already there has been much discussion about the use of 3-D printers to make untraceable parts for home-built handguns, for example. The printers are being used in the aerospace industry to make parts for rockets and aircraft, Williams said. It is conceivable that a rogue designer could use 3-D printing to make parts for rockets or other munitions to be used by terrorists.

"When an adversary has a capability edge, they are more likely to use it."

Margaret E. Kosal, Georgia Tech

Margaret E. Kosal | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

It is not just the obvious weapons that are raising concerns. Jason Lee, a specialist on science and technology-based threats for the FBI, said terrorists and violent criminals could use do-it-yourself techniques to mold ordinary-looking objects as hollow shell decoys to conceal explosives, toxic chemicals or other materials that can cause harm.

Lee is concerned that 3D printers and other emerging devices could be "disruptive" technologies that could provide some kind of performance advantage to a bad actor. And Margaret E. Kosal, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's Sam Nunn School of International Affairs agreed: "When an adversary has a capability edge, they are more likely to use it."

Kosal mentioned an assassination scenario that could employ coated magnetic nanoparticles capable of passing the blood-brain barrier. The particles could essentially "fry" a victim's brain when activated by an external source of electromagnetic radiation. (Nanoparticles are between 1 and 100 nanometers across. A human hair has a width of about 80,000 nanometers.)

Although she stressed that the nefarious use of magnetic nanoparticles is strictly hypothetical for now, Kosal said "the precision that additive manufacturing may enable" is a concern.  Proponents of molecular manufacturing already point to commercially available 3-D printers for their potential use in making nanoparticles.

"The challenge is trying to predict which new technologies can be used against us," Kosal said. "No one has a crystal ball with that fidelity."

Many emerging technologies and materials must be considered for their possible dual uses, both for good and for harm, the speakers cautioned. Those who might misuse new technologies for lethal attacks include both rogue nation states and non-state actors such as terrorists, saboteurs, violent criminals and disgruntled insiders. Beyond attacks on individuals, Lee said, a major concern is use of technology to cause systemic harm to the nation's infrastructure and institutions — the stock market, power grid, water distribution network, other utilities — through cyber-attacks or other means.   

"We need to be creating mechanisms out there, whether in government or industry, to fully understand the research and development cycle” of emerging technologies."

Jason Lee, FBI

Some of the technologies that worry national security specialists are well known, including possible clandestine efforts to produce viruses or biotoxins that could have lethal effects. Misuse of synthetic biology, the design and fabrication of biological organisms and systems that do not already exist in the natural world, also is a source of concern.  

Tissue engineering one day may make it possible to create new organs or tissues on demand at battlefield hospitals, Kosal said. At the same time, however, advances in bioengineering could make it possible to augment the senses and physical durability of soldiers in combat, a human performance enhancement that would raise serious ethical, legal and operational issues. If such enhancement methods were to be developed by an adversary, questions about their use would become even more urgent.

The commercial availability of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also raises questions, according to Lee. The versatile craft are being discussed as a potential means for quicker product deliveries to homes by and others. But they also could be used for illicit purposes.  The same goes for robotically piloted automobiles (so-called driverless cars) that could reduce traffic fatalities and help people with disabilities, but which also could be used to transport explosives for detonation at urban locations.

Lee cautioned about less obvious developments, including the emerging field of metamaterials — chemical compounds that are not found in nature but rather are fabricated by humans for some beneficial purpose. Such materials might be created for weapons purposes in makeshift labs by scientists with the right combinational chemistry skills and the proper equipment, Lee noted. Could a sophisticated adversary fortify parts, for example, or make them "stealthy" and less detectable in ways that are unfamiliar to government specialists?

Lee also mentioned the variety of high-tech sensors now available. They can extend the capabilities of the human senses and sniff for evidence of biological, chemical and radiological weapons. Facial recognition software for video images also is becoming more widely used. There has been an ongoing debate about the privacy and civil rights implications of collecting and analyzing a wealth of data in an open society, but Lee said there also are concerns about foreign adversaries trying to use such technologies "right here in our backyard" for surreptitious purposes.

When assessing the potential for misuse of emerging technologies, Kosal said, the big question is whether a technology provides an identifiable strategic advantage to an adversary. Despite the concern about nanotechnology, she said, the largest use so far of the technology is in the manufacture of cosmetics.

Policy makers must be careful, Kosal said, "not to restrict our ingenuity and inadvertently constrain our own scientific enterprise" by tacit rules or explicit laws that make it less attractive for researchers to pursue advanced technologies. "There's obviously a balance to be struck here," she said.

Early knowledge about the potential uses and misuses of new technologies is essential, Lee emphasized. "We need to be creating mechanisms out there, whether in government or industry, to fully understand the research and development cycle," he said.  That means more "situational awareness" on how an idea moves from early conception to research to product development. Lee suggested that companies could start to do more scenario analysis of their own on how their products might be misused or misappropriated rather than leaving it up to the government or end users of their goods.


Christopher Williams | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

In the case of 3-D printing, Williams and his colleagues already have been exploring some of the cyber-vulnerabilities of the emerging technology.  What would happen, for example, if an advanced manufacturing network was attacked with a computer virus such as the Stuxnet virus that crippled Iran's uranium enrichment facility? By tinkering with the software that controls a 3-D printer, Williams said, "We can print a hole in your product and you will never know it." Such voids could significantly reduce the strength of the printed part.

And since mainstream use of 3-D printing technology could make it easier for backstreet 3-D print shops to duplicate products on the cheap, the Virginia Tech team also has been working on ways to verify the authenticity of 3-D printed goods by "watermarking" them with printable nanosuspension inks.