Controlling additive manufacturing and intangible transfers of technology


Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) researchers Kolja Brockmann and Robert Kelley published a research paper last month, about the challenges brought by the rise of Additive Manufacturing (AM) technologies to exports-control regulations.

After describing the state of the art of AM technologies, they explain how these could fuel weapons proliferation, and warn that existing regulations are not prepared to address this threat yet.

The many different additive manufacturing processes all have in common that they create objects by adding successive lairs of a raw material together until the desired volume is reached. Most of the materials used consists of special plastics, polymers or even metal powders that are fused together using a source of directed energy, often a laser beam. These processes have numerous advantages compared to traditional “subtractive manufacturing” methods, whereby material is progressively removed from a raw chunk of material. First is the obvious fact that none of the raw material is wasted.

AM allows creating complex single-pieced shapes that cannot be achieved with subtractive methods, thus limiting the number of needed fixations and with it, the risk of failure. But their most critical feature in this case is that most AM technologies require only a digital model of the desired object, a “build-file” in the form of electronic data, in order to manufacture it almost instantly. This means that, in theory, the owner of an AM console can manufacture virtually any object, including weapons and other “products that are subject to dual-use and arms exports control”, provided he owns the necessary build-files.

And the problem is these build-files are of course extremely easy to transfer by electronic means, like e-mail or FTP for example. This is why AM poses such a challenge to existing exports-control regimes, because it has the potential to “enable export control circumvention and contribute to illicit weapon programs,” SIPRI said.

To this day, these technologies still plays a minor role in arms proliferation, partly because of the cost of metal AM versus cheaper conventional alternatives (in 2013, an additively-manufactured gun was still ten times more expensive than a conventional one). But mostly, it’s because of their still-limited performance – the aerospace industry for example, which is very fond of AM, is still cautious about using it to created critical engine components or stress-bearing parts. But the researchers warn that in close-to-mid-term, AM will probably fuel weapons proliferation in at least four domains.

The first and most imminent is that of small arms and light weapons (SALW) – the first entirely 3D-printed “Liberator” gun was manufactured back in 2013 and, although publication and diffusion of light-weaponry build-files is illegal in many countries, such interdictions are almost impossible to enforce. For example, when the build-files for the notorious “Liberator” gun were put online back in 2013, they had already been downloaded 100 000 times before US law enforcements could react, only two days later…

The second domain is that of missiles: AM already allows for the production of “complicated shapes that are both hollow and stable (…) allowing the weight reduction and component performance” which are critical to missile systems. The report points at the Raytheon Company which, after having reportedly manufactured a guided missile containing 80% of 3D-printed components in December 2017, stated that “the day is coming when missiles can be printed”. The two last domains are that of nuclear weapons and centrifuges, but most of such systems’ critical components are so complex that the potential contribution of AM to their proliferation remains limited in the near future.

In theory, existing regulations already address the issue of AM technologies. Indeed, they apply to both physical items on the one hand (in this case the machines themselves, the laser beams and the raw powders), and on the other, the “intangible transfers of associated technologies”, meaning “the information required for the development, production or use of a controlled item” (in this case, the digital build-files).

But in reality, current exports-control regulations are not prepared to stop AM from fueling arms proliferation in the near future. Their spectrum only captures a fraction of the critical equipment and digital data needed to manufacture arms with an AM console, because dual use goods, which they are, generally escape stricter export-controls.

Also, regulations differ from one country to another and are extremely difficult to enforce when it comes to restricting the diffusion of digital build-files. Last but not least, it’s actually still difficult for lawmakers to grasp what exactly should be restricted in order to contain AM-fueled weapons proliferation.

Pointing out some obvious flaws in existing exports-control regimes, the SIPRI researchers find that when it comes to controlling transfers of missile production equipment, for example, the international Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) only limits sales of equipment whose exclusive function is to produce missile systems. Dual-use equipment, such as AM consoles, do not fall under this regulation. Identical issues also affect the transfer of the raw-materials used by the machines. However, the researchers also notice that the overall literature surrounding export controls is progressively opening to the inclusion of dual-use goods in their spectrum to address AM-fueled proliferation. For example, recent proposals suggested limiting transfers of certain licensed software without which AM consoles cannot exploit a build-file.

Initiatives are definitely building up and SIPRI researchers strongly suggest to start by amending export control regimes so that they can include AM consoles and the equipment they require, especially laser beams and feedstock materials.

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.