TT Talk - 3D printing - opportunity or risk

3D printing - also known as additive manufacturing (AM) - is a process of manufacturing virtually any three dimensional object from either an existing model or an electronic data source. Such equipment was first developed in the 1980's so in itself is not new. However, in recent years rapid development has moved it form the laboratory to the marketplace.

In the 1980's, the technology was comparatively primitive, and the cost and accessibility of equipment was prohibitive. Today, following inevitable refinement and consideration of beneficial uses, 3D printers are widely available for a reasonably modest cost within US$3,000, making them accessible to even the serious hobbyist.

The process involves the build-up of successive layers of material to form a final object, ultimately controlled by computer. The materials used range from plastics through to metals, all in liquid form. The potential application of such technology could realise benefits in just about every conceivable sector. The advantages are varied, including cost savings as against traditional manufacturing processes, whether associated with energy consumption or manpower, as well as an increase in efficiency and facilitating distribution.

"The advantages of 3D printing are varied, including cost savings as against traditional manufacturing processes, whether associated with energy consumption or manpower"

Through the supply chain there exist many potential immediate benefits, including ready availability of spare parts or reduction in the necessity to maintain inventory stock levels. If you imagine a supply disruption in the motor industry, there is the potential for extremely high hourly costs and operational difficulties, especially where the required parts are not immediately available to maintain or reinstate the production line. With the effective deployment of 3D printing technology, in time such an issue may be immediately overcome by simply printing the required parts on site from an electronically stored data model.

A criminal dimension

There are clearly benefits to be gained through the deployment of such technology through the supply chain. There are, however, a growing number of reports across the media highlighting the potential misuse of such equipment. One report gained high profile recently where a fully functional weapon was printed, which also had the potential to be undetectable through security deployed X-ray scanning equipment.

The logistics industry has also been on the receiving end of the misuse of this technology. It is understood in the last 12 months that there have been cases of cargo theft from sealed trucks and containers, where thorough post incident examination has implicated 3D printing technology. In these cases, it appears that criminal organisations have been able to all but exactly copy a plastic seal and even a bolt seal. In doing so, it was possible to print a replica seal. The theft would involve diverting the truck or container during the road leg of the transit to a warehouse location, where the original seal could be broken, without the thieves having to avoid damaging the seal or concern themselves with the time-consuming removal of the door handle equipment. Thus, the cargo can be removed from the CTU (and either replaced with bags of sand to delay detection or not replaced at all). The thieves then duly fit a newly printed seal on the CTU that is virtually identical to the original.

New dimensions in risk mitigation

Mitigating such risks is inherently challenging given the now widespread availability and acceptance of the technology. Simple awareness of the risk exposure is a cost effective first step. It would be prudent to develop a process of checking and verifying seals as they are broken. For example, where bolt seals are concerned, interrogate the inner steel core - is it present and as expected? Any suspicious findings should be reported immediately to management and, as necessary, escalated to the relevant authorities.

It is also recommended that simple house-keeping processes are adopted with a view to preventing or detecting this type of criminal activity, such as ensuring that broken seals are not freely discarded. Implementing a controlled destruction procedure for used seals may also ensure that a model from which a template could be produced is not unwittingly made available to those seeking to print counterfeit seals. The existing good practice of shredding confidential waste papers has simply taken on a new dimension.

We hope that you have found the above interesting. If you would like further information, or have any comments, please email us, or take this opportunity to forward to any colleagues who you may feel would be interested.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox

Risk Management Director, TT Club

Staff Author

TT Club