3-D Printing Will Disrupt the World in Ways We Can Barely Imagine


In the last few years, additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, has transformed from an interesting hobby to an industry producing a wide range of products. It is on the path to causing major disruptions in global trade — and changing the international security environment. The explosion of additive manufacturing means it is virtually impossible to provide an up-to-date list of materials that can be printed, but a recent top ten list includes: metals, such as stainless, bronze, steel, gold, nickel steel, aluminum, and titanium; carbon fiber and nano-tubes; stem cells; ceramics; and food. Researchers are exploring the application of 3-D printing to fields from agriculture and biology to design and manufacturing. MIT developed a $7,000 multi-material printer than can print ten materials in the same object during a single fabrication process. As businesses learn to use these multi-material printers, the range of products they will be able to print will expand exponentially.

Through it all, the products produced by additive manufacturing will increase in both quality and complexity. In February 2015, Australian researchers printed a jet engine. But don’t think metal printing is only for major corporations — Michigan Tech designed a 3-D metal printer for that can be built for $1200. Creative people worldwide will be able to develop and produce metal products.

Nor does size seem to be a limit for additive manufacturing. It can produce products from nano-scale to tens of meters. IBM developed a 3-D printer capable of printing microchips with nanometer resolution at a fraction of the cost of current manufacturing systems. At the other end of the size spectrum, large printers are producing cars, houses, and even five-story buildings. Further, 3-D printing is efficient because material wastage is near zero. It may be cheaper to make a part from titanium using additive manufacturing than from steel using traditional machining.

Recent technological developments indicate industry will also be able to increase 3-D printing speeds up 100 times over the current limit, with a goal of eventually printing 1,000 times faster. The rapid advances of the last few years mean additive manufacturing is progressing from a niche capability that produces prototypes and expensive precise components to a manufacturing industry capable of producing products in large quantities. UPS created a factory with 100 printers that accepts orders, prices them, prints them, and ships them in the same day from the adjacent UPS shipping facility. UPS has plans to expand the plant to 1,000 printers to support major production runs. This article can only mention a very few of the literally thousands of advances in 3-D printing.

Military Implications

The implications of additive manufacturing for the battlefield are immense. Researchers at the University of Virginia have 3-D-printed a drone in a single day and by adding an Android phone made it autonomous — all for $2,500. Using artificial intelligence available today, such a drone could identify a distinct object such as an aircraft or fuel truck using on board multi-spectral imaging before engaging it with an explosively formed projectile. In short, autonomous, cheap weapons systems will range for miles, hunting and engaging specific targets. Think of them as IEDs that hunt you. If aspirations for greater printing speed are met, a factory with only 100 printers and sufficient raw materials could produce 10,000 such autonomous drones a day. The implications for ground forces are obvious — thousands of drone strikes on vehicles, ammunition dumps, fuel trucks, and other soft targets. This threat will not be limited to short-range drones. Long-range air and undersea autonomous drones are being produced today, and manufacturers are competing hard to reduce the price. Thus naval and air forces will also be at risk from cheap, smart, long-range weapons.

The Greatest Strategic Impact of 3-D Printing: Local Production Replaces Globalization

Yet the greatest strategic impact of additive manufacturing may not occur on the battlefield, but rather in the mundane manufacturing of clothing, shoes, appliances, phones, medical devices, and much more. In short, localized distributed manufacturing will become the norm. Not only will products be cheaper, but they will also be extremely customizable, rendering traditional manufacturing able to compete in only a few areas. And since 3-D printing technology is so cheap, it will also be incredibly widespread — Cambodia, for instance, already has a 3-D print shop.

3-D printing is also attractive because it drastically reduces the costs of producing complex items. Using traditional “subtractive” manufacturing — the norm in manufacturing today — complexity dramatically increases costs as a result of the need for highly skilled labor to assemble complex forms from a series of parts. By contrast, additive manufacturing produces even highly complex parts as a single unit. For example, General Electric is using 3-D-printed fuel nozzles in its new LEAP series of jet engines. Normally consisting of up to 20 finely machined and carefully assembled parts, the 3-D-printed nozzle is a single part that boasts improved performance over the assembled nozzles.

3-D printing, married with artificial intelligence and robots, will disrupt manufacturing globally. It will radically alter who makes what where. Rather than subcontracting the production of components to Southeast Asia, shipping those components to China for assembly, and finally shipping them to consumers, many manufacturers will produce locally and switch to just-in-time production schedules. This shift will eliminate shipping and inventory costs as well deal with the increasingly costly problem of intellectual property theft. Local production will result in major reductions in the globalization of manufacturing and thus change the economic element of the global strategic environment. As manufacturing returns to rich countries, it will deprive the nations of Southeast Asia of the opportunity to pursue export-based growth. Perhaps the greatest threat is to Chinese growth. Even as its growth settles to a new, lower, normal, China struggles to shift from an export-based economy to a consumption-based one. If China cannot make the shift before the additive manufacturing results in localized manufacturing, it will suffer major negative impacts on growth. Given the Chinese Communist Party’s primary claim to legitimacy is economic growth, it may face increasing internal instability.

This convergence of 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and robotics will accelerate the current shift of wealth from labor to capital. It will allow much greater productivity per unit of both capital and labor, but dramatically reduce the number of people required. Those who own capital and can execute their business models with fewer skilled laborers will profit greatly from this shift in manufacturing techniques. The United States will not be immune to this trend.

And, as happened in the West, even poor nations are seeing changes in agriculture that are reducing the demand for unskilled labor. Robots guided by artificial intelligence are displacing increasing numbers of agricultural laborers. Unfortunately, the large number of now unneeded laborers will have no income, radically affecting global wealth distribution. This will increase instability in many struggling nations while reducing the ability and propensity of the voters of developed nations to assist them.

The impact of these global shifts in trade patterns, employment, and wealth distribution will emerge over the next decade. It will likely lead to a slowing and perhaps even a reversal of the decades-long trend of increasing globalization. As economic interests and labor issues are more locally driven, we can expect national politicians and businessmen to also turn inwards — businessmen to maintain profitability and politicians as they have to deal with the resultant major social changes and likely instability. Policymakers and strategists need to track this trend and incorporate its implications into their plans.


T. X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the U.S. National Defense University. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, Department of Defense or the National Defense University.


Image credit: Yoan Carle