Monthly Discussion Banner

Where do you see the future of 3D printing and what are the benefits and risks associated with it?

Discussion Leader: 
Posted Date: 09/21/2015

This week's question is based on HDIAC's Spotlight showcasing advances in 3D printing. Additive manufacturing offers easy customization of complex products, and as 3D printing evolves, it is used in various applications, including: developing transplantable organs, surveillance drones, transportation vehicles and lighter weapons. This is a powerful technology, with multiple sectors investing research and development funding; however, there are risks involved with this technology, including infringing copyrights and undetectable multi-material weaponry.

Lawrence Livermore researchers have made graphene aerogel microlattices with an engineered architecture via a 3D printing technique known as direct ink writing. Illustratiion by Ryan Chen/LLNL


The appearance of external hyperlinks in this publication does not constitute endorsement by the HDIAC or the United States Department of Defense (DoD) of the linked sites, nor the information, products, or services contained therein. The HDIAC is a DOD sponsored Information Analysis Center (IAC), with policy oversight provided by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (ASD(R&E)), and administratively managed by the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC). Reference herein to any specific commercial products, process, or services by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the United States Government or the HDIAC. Any views or opinions expressed in the Question of the Week do not represent those of HDIAC, DTIC or the DoD.


The future of 3D printing is limitless. NASA has tested 3D printers in space to ensure they work the same in a zero gravity environment as they do on Earth. And, with 3D printers becoming less expensive and able to handle more materials, we will see their use in nearly every situation (from personal and industrial to military use for creating replacement parts for equipment). It also appears printing missiles will be a near-future accomplishment. 

But, with all of these possiblities, what are the regulations? I would be concerned about home-printing of weapons that aren't as easily traceable or properly manufactured. I will be interested to see where this technology takes us, especially as home-based 3D printers appear to be financially attainable. 

The rate at which 3D printing is continuing to improve is astounding. It was only a few years ago that 3D printing was still considered something out of a sci-fi movie. Now, ORNL is printing houses and cars, and the number of applications for 3D printing continues to increase (batteries, toys, tools, etc.). There are always risks with new technology, and this is no different. However, I do think that the benefits of this technology will far out weigh any potential problems. 

With the emergence of affordable 3D printing, Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), which are in often remote, unsafe areas, can greatly benefit. Equipment and manpower are also deployed to these FOBs. This is not a singular act, but an ongoing activity that requires logistics planning and supply chain operations. Supply chains require armored vehicles and soldiers to secure supply lines. When equipment fails and parts need to be replaced, it can take weeks for a replacement to arrive. 3D printing can alleviate the time between need and acquirement while also lessening the need for supply chain convoys, which allows soldiers to focus more on mission and less on obtaining basic supplies. 

3D printing is becoming more affordable, and soon it is likely to be easily available in most homes. This opens up a great deal of avenues for artists (especially vinyl toy designers), as well as engineers and do it yourselfers.

The major downside is that it will bring a great deal of legislation. 3D printed weapons have already been discussed, but many forsee larger property rights legislation coming out of this. Anyone who was around when music piracy was a big deal will remember the old tagline, "You wouldn't download a car." Coupled with 3d scanning technology, one could print their own replacement parts in house, this is where design ownership gets tricky.

The news of 3-D printing is only beginning. It’s astounding to read about the accomplishments of 3-D printing, from bridges and houses to even weapons. Right now the technology is only available to those who can afford the expensive price tag; however, it won’t be long before we see the implementation of this technology within public households.

Products created by 3-D printing will soon be manufactured close to their point of purchase, which means that many places, such as dealerships or factories could eliminate the need for supply chain management by being able to create the parts in-house. This has the potential to have a profound impact on the world, and I’m definitely interested in seeing how this creation will have an impact on the economy in the foreseeable future.   

3D printing has the capability to revolutionize the way we produce things. By making production more efficient, cost effective, and consistent, this technology has nearly limitless potential.

Perhaps even more intriguing is the concept of 4D printing. As discussed by Skylar Tibbits in this Ted Talks video, 4D printed objects share the real-world properties of 3D objects, but have the added dimension of programmability.

Imagine being able to print water pipes that could shrink or expand in the ground, or even undulate to move water without the use of pumps; or printed materials that could be used to repair or replace damaged muscle tissue [1]; or 3D printed boats that change shape or structure based on their environment. [2] With 4D printing, materials could conceptually be printed with these functions embedded, and would only need the application of time or a change in environment to trigger their effects.