The democratizing technology could radically change the military-industrial complex.
"The potential to revolutionize the way we do almost everything," declared President Barack Obama.
And "like the cupcake, Daft Punk's latest album, or goji berries… severely overhyped," said Gizmodo.
Direct digital manufacturing, popularly known as "3D printing," may be both of these things. Its core concept of turning "bits to atoms" by using digital files to design and build outside a traditional assembly line has been breathlessly reported in everything from feel-good stories of children hearing through digitally manufactured ears to spooky stories of wingnuts making 3D printed M-16s in their garages.
However, there is one area that, despite receiving relatively little recognition, might be where 3D printing has its most important impact of all: the industry of war.
Similarly, 3D printing has also allowed remarkable new design possibilities for technologies that might be used in battle. While many still think of the field as mostly hobbyists working in fragile plastics, GE recently showed off how far we've come by making an entirely 3D printed jet engine. These possibilities might be new parts for traditional weapons that are lighter or more efficient than those made through traditional construction, or it might be the design of entirely new weapons.
At the 2015 Sea-Air-Space Expo, a Navy trade show, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus showed off a CICADA (short for Close-In Autonomous Disposable Aircraft). CICADA is a tiny, disposable, 3D printed drone guided by GPS that can "seed an area with miniature electronic payloads, such as communication nodes or sensors." In other words, imagine a swarm of tiny robotic drones flooding an enemy's defenses.
The Navy has also explored using 3D printing to make winglets for its current F-18 fighter jets and recently a $36 million Navy plane was "saved" thanks to a 3D printed prototype part.
It's remarkable that both the revolutionary improvement and the incremental one were enabled by this new field.
3D printing has often been described as being part of a Second Industrial Revolution. For perhaps the most apt precedent to understand how it might play out in war and industry, we should look to Samuel Colt, a key player in the first Industrial Revolution.
The Connecticut-born Colt was an inveterate inventor. He conceived new designs for everything from repeating firearms, to the waterproof cables that were used both for telegraphs and the first electrically detonated mines at sea (John Quincy Adams then shut down US government funding for the mines as he thought the idea of remotely operated weapons was "not fair and honest warfare." How far we've come!).
Yet, for all the importance of Colt's inventions—such as the new six-shooter Colt .45, not so aptly nicknamed "the Peacemaker"—his biggest contribution was rethinking the manufacturing process. By introducing interchangeable parts, Colt could make his new guns in mass numbers, through what we now think of as the assembly line.
Just like the military, criminals and terrorists will increasingly be able to make their own, hard-to-trace gear
This shift was a true game changer for both industry and then war. Up to that point, the hubs of military manufacture and gunsmithing were government owned armories like Harper's Ferry. Colt changed all that, manufacturing military equipment and weapons in his private armory—the precursor to the modern defense industrial complex.
A similar shakeup seems likely to happen via 3D printing.
The modern defense economy is dominated by large corporations that profit from the design and sale of military systems and then decades of selling the follow-up spare parts. They locate their manufacture in a system that, instead of being efficiently consolidated into one place, is spread around the country, sensibly maximizing their presence in as many congressional districts as possible. The manufacture of the military's new F-35 fighter jet, for example, is made in a stunning 46 states, making its cancellation impossible under the politics of the day.
By liberating not just the design, but the actual manufacture from the assembly line, the technology bodes an incredibly disruptive shift for not just what is used in war in the 21st century—it is also changing the how it is made, and therefore might also shift the who and where.
The ability to design and manufacture now is being moved back onto the open market, whether it be to people's garages to even back to the military itself.
It is too early to know where this all might go next, but the possibilities are immense. We might see a return to the previous model of the defense industry, where industry players served both the military and civilian market off the same factory lines. In the mid 20th century, Ford made both cars and B-24 bombers, while Philco made everything from refrigerators and laundry machines to the first computerized "brain" of Navy jet fighters. With the ability to rapidly shift between designs, a 21st century company could use 3D printing to make anything from customized action figures to fighter jet winglets. This will allow both new entries into the defense space and, in turn, potentially shift the fundamental identities of defense firms.
This distributed model is one future. Or, we might see a return to the past, the very model of making weapons that the last industrial revolution displaced, where the military takes back the design and manufacture of its own gear. In his vision for the future, for example, the Secretary of the Navy cited how a group of sailors on the USS Essex built their own drone and flew it off their ship. Meanwhile, Air Force machinists have crafted their own spare parts for the venerable B-52 bomber (the plane first flew in 1952 and is so old that many of the original firms that make the parts are out of business).
If the military does go this route, it may encounter another wrinkle. What makes the technology of today different from that of Colt's day is the digitization of the design process. This redistributes not just the ability to make something new, but to recreate, or even modify and improve on something old.
The old international punishment of putting a rogue nation under sanctions won't have the same effect
This shift is more similar to what iPods and digital downloads did to the music industry. It shakes up an old system of IP rights and the control of distribution channels, redefining the producers, owners, and distributors of content. Defense companies have to worry about whether their trusted profit lines of spare parts might be wiped out by a crafty sailor with some spare time and CAD design skills, while the Navy has to figure out how much to allow its sailors to invent and who profits when they do.
It is not just entire industries that might shift, with jobs being both created and lost. Fields that range from law enforcement to diplomacy will also see new possibilities and perils. For example, just like the military, criminals and terrorists will increasingly be able to make their own, hard-to-trace gear. In San Bernadino, California, for example, police raided the hideout of a credit card theft ring and instead discovered a 3D printer being used to make automatic weapons parts. This is of even more concern in countries where guns are not as easily available as they are in the US; UK police have already discovered several criminal 3D gun "factories," described as among "the worst fears of security chiefs."
Similar shakeups loom on the international level. For instance, the old international punishment of putting a rogue nation under sanctions (such as those Iran is under for suspected nuclear weapons work, creating shortages of everything from jet fighter spare parts to oil rig gear) won't have the same effect. All a nation will need to obtain is a digital code to recreate what it needs.
It also means the technologic and battlefield edge militaries get from buying new gear won't hold as long as it did previously. For example, a group of university students in Great Britain needed just five days to design and fly a drone whose performance was comparable to those used by their military, while China's space program has used 3D printing to make parts that NASA took decades to produce.
"The only limit to what this new technology can do for us is our imagination," the Secretary of the Navy said. That is exactly what makes it so exciting and scary.
Peter Warren Singer is strategist for the New America Foundation, consultant for the Pentagon, and author of several books, including the upcoming Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, which features a scene of weapons being 3D printed in a Walmart.