Could World War III be triggered by technological advances in 3-D printing? Will efforts at gun control fall short because, for the first time, individuals can use the latest technology to simply manufacturer their own guns?
These are real concerns predict predicts a senior research official at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who, among other experts, is watching the societal convergence of technical convenience with potential political and religious radicalism.
3D printing technology has been rapidly advancing and regulators are racing to keep the public safe
Plans to build basic handguns from 3D printers are currently readily available on-line and in use. These schemes don’t just help users make simple guns, but now more complex metal weapons such as semi-automatic rifles are being manufactured by 3D printers.
In this environment the US State Department has argued uploading instructions to make a 3D-printed handgun on the Internet violated federal laws barring exports of military technology. This is done for a reason notes Bruce Goodwin, associate director at large for national security policy and research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
There is an evolving threat that unregulated 3D weapons may be a run-away gun proliferation proxy that could arm people regions with the strictest of public sale laws.
But more worrying is the next step that is now being taken. If terrorists had access to a 3D nuclear bomb printing plans, they could slip into a sovereign territory unarmed and undetected, then manufacturer and detonate a bomb locally.
Goodwin and other nuclear policy experts are advocating restrictions on certain types of 3D printers while other experts are proposing limits on manufacturers. It is not enough to regulate hardware, but the software and the intellectual capacity to produce the weapons should be monitored and restricted.
Playing a game of 3D printing catch up
Traditional efforts to curtail nuclear proliferation have centered on efforts to monitor international markets for sales of nuclear bomb making components. This focused not only on uranium and other rare earth supplies, but technical components used to manufacture the bomb itself.
This has nonproliferation scholars such as Grant Christopher and arms control analyst Amy Nelson concerned. In the UK Daily Mail they note terrorist organizations could effectively hijack 3D printing technology to create destructive weapons.
3D printing technology has advanced from the days a Japanese Zig Zag 3D printer amazed the world by then firing six shots from a plastic gun. After his public demonstration on YouTube, the author of the invention, Yoshitomo Imura, was arrested in Japan for owing 3D printed firearm components.
While notable successes exist, the process of making a 3D printed gun is not easy. There have been significant issues with 3D printing gun reliability and printing them is complex. The Daily Mail report estimated that it would take a complete novice a handful of months to successfully print and assemble a gun.
“A big misconception is that 3D printing and making guns using 3D printers are easy to make,” one anonymous 3D gun printer, “Duce,” was quoted as saying. “We have been doing this for years and I can say it’s not easy.”
Some gun designs rely on 3D printing the majority of components but then integrating the most sophisticated machinery from more traditional manufacturing sources. In the UK such integration efforts have stymied 3D gun printers who don’t have access to mass manufactured component parts.
The same type of component integration could take place with a 3D-printed nuclear bomb, or the bomb might be able to be entirely manufactured custom.