The 3D-printing technique developed by the Australian Defense Science and Technology Group is aimed at improving efficencies in repairing components, and boosting the operational ability of aerospace platforms.
While relatively modest aspirations, the Australian military's desire to integrate 3D-printing into its combat zone resources has never been a secret. In 2016, an army insider told local media he envisaged up to 90 percent of military equipment — naturally not including food or fuel — eventually being manufactured via 3D-printing, and largely on the battlefield.
The Australian military is far from alone in this regard — defense establishments the world over have been investigating the cutting-edge technology for some time. It's arguable a 3D-printing arms race has been quietly building in the new millennium, with most of the world's major powers (including China, Russia and the US) investing combined billions in strategic and tactical research and development. For example, the US military, the world's best funded, has explored the viability of 3D-printed food, replacement bones and limbs and battle armor, and successfully tested 3D-printed ballistic missiles.
Similarly, defense contractors have been working on 3D-printing solutions for much the same time period — US weapons giant Raytheon intend to make completely 3D-printed missiles. The firm says its researchers have created nearly every component of a guided weapon using 3D-printing, including rocket engines, fins, guidance and control systems, and more. For example, the firm's Trident Missile program is a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile, armed with thermonuclear warheads.
However, while militaries have a natural and perhaps justifiable inclination towards adopting any and all beneficial technologies, the worldwide shift towards 3D-printed military hardware is a potentially hazardous trend. It is already far too easy for weaponry to end up in the wrong hands, as Daesh's extensive appropriation of Western-made armaments in Iraq attests. 3D-printing increases this risk significantly, as hostile actors, be they states, groups or individuals, needn't get their mitts on physical hardware — merely secure the blueprints for 3D-printable munitions.
The burgeoning international 3D-printed gun market is a compelling case in point. The world's first — "The Liberator" — was fired in 2013. Made wholly from plastic parts, it was the invention of libertarian students who dubbed themselves Defense Distributed. The group posted the weapon's blueprints online to allow anyone and everyone with access to a 3D-printer to create their own, naturally sparking fears criminals and terrorists could now make their own constructible, undetectable firearms in private, safe from the prying eyes of law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Given 3D-printing has developed in leaps and bounds since then, it's no surprise 3D-printed guns have too — and 3D-printed metal guns have been designed and created by both businesses and private individuals.
In the former case, the firm Solid Concepts produced a weapon indistinguishable from traditionally-crafted hand cannons. The company was quick to defend its creation, noting the piece was crafted using industrial laser-sintering equipment, facilities costing millions, if not billions, to procure — in essence, they argued it would be prohibitively expensive for criminal elements to follow their example.
However, 3D-printing is in its relative infancy — and as with all technologies, the price of associated equipment is going down, while capabilities are increasing, all the time.
There are nonetheless a number of factors that arguably mitigate the hazardous potential of 3D-printed guns — namely, it's far easier, and cheaper, for individuals to acquire weapons than via 3D-printing, such as via the black market, or its modern incarnation, the "Dark Web."
Moreover, a traditional 'analog' gun will be of a far higher quality, and more reliable, than a 3D-printed one. As Europol has found, non-fatal pistols endlessly flood Europe, and are subsequently converted into offensive weapons — and there's little national or international law enforcement agencies can do to stem the tide. For instance, gas pistols are extremely popular with criminals due to their low cost and the ease with which they can be converted to live-firing — a process that can also be reversed.
"Legal gas pistols are obviously very attractive to the criminal class, as they are cheap, easy to access, and the best models will already essentially be guns. The only difference between a blank and a bullet is the former lacks a projectile. If you modify that, you're most of the way there," firearms expert David Dyson previously told Sputnik.
Nonetheless, it isn't quite so easy, or inexpensive, to procure major military equipment on the black market — and using 3D-printing to create hardware with far greater destruction potential than a humble handgun solves many of the issues preventing most criminals and terrorists getting hold of such resources, such as detection in transit, and availability.
Even if the rise of 3D-printed weapons isn't necessarily a serious danger, it serves as palpable demonstration 21st century innovation enables individuals — law abiding and criminally inclined alike — to do things previously unthinkable. It is entirely inevitable that as with any technology, 3D-printing can and will be used for ill as well as good, professionally and privately.