Combating climate risks in 3D

By Caitlin E. Werrell, Francesco Femia | June 8, 2015

3D printing takes computer models and turns them into sculpted objects such as auto-part prototypes, artificial limbs, and one-of-a-kind toys. But the technology isn’t just for manufacturers and Maker Faires. It can also help with efforts to prepare for, and respond to, climate change—which the US Department of Defense has determined “poses immediate risks to national security.” As communities and nations become more vulnerable to climate change effects, such as sea level rise and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, the ability to print replacement parts for generators, water filters, or temporary shelters—on site—may become a critical and inexpensive tool of climate adaptation, particularly in zones of instability and conflict. And as societies seek greater energy efficiency in manufacturing processes and products, 3D printing offers the possibility of cost-effective reductions in greenhouse gases.

Testing grounds. The potential role for 3D printing in adapting to and mitigating climate change risks to security is already being tested, though the testers may not even know it. The US military has been developing 3D printing for everything from equipment replacement to treating battlefield injuries, but there may also be associated benefits for confronting climate risks.

A powerful example is the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF), which in 2012 deployed two Expeditionary Labs at remote bases in Afghanistan. Each Ex Lab is a 20-foot shipping container converted into a workspace equipped with 3D printers, other key tools, and a wireless network of experts to help troops develop quick solutions to equipment and environmental problems. Troops in Afghanistan used the lab’s 3D printers to adapt to extreme heat. According to Colonel Peter Newell, then head of the REF, “the 54 °C heat in Afghanistan was playing havoc with the batteries in a ground-penetrating radar system used to search for mines, so soldiers used the 3D printer to make a shielding case to protect them. It worked so well that everyone wanted one.”

The US Navy is also exploring how to better integrate 3D printing into its operations. According to Vice Admiral Phil Cullom, the Navy aims to train sailors to use 3D printing to “increase the speed of execution, improve readiness, decrease costs and avoid shipping parts around the world,” all functions that will be increasingly important for humanitarian assistance and disaster response support the Navy is often called on to provide.

The military is not alone. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since 1997 to aid with prediction and preparation for weather events in developing countries. They recently began testing 3D-printed weather stations, to cut costs and increase the availability of forecasts and replacement parts in remote locations.

How 3D printing can reduce climate security risks. In the near term, 3D printing will not replace the economies of scale associated with mass production. But there are encouraging signs of progress. In 2013, President Obama called for three new manufacturing innovation institutes, which will include a heavy emphasis on 3D printing. The Defense Department will lead two of those institutes.

While security risks that emanate from climate change will not always require military responses, the technological innovations that 3D printing makes possible can significantly improve the tools available for both militaries and civilian institutions when responding to, preparing for, and mitigating those risks. These benefits come in five main forms:

Rapid response and prototyping. The nimbleness of the US military’s disaster response operations, in coordination with civilian institutions like USAID, depends on the availability and suitability of supplies. For example, aid agencies keep storerooms full of supplies that have to be shipped to disaster zones, sometimes thousands of miles away. That takes time, and supplies are not always perfectly suited to conditions on the ground. Just as the US military has used 3D printing to prevent battery failures in extreme heat—a problem with potentially fatal consequences—the quick production of supplies and prototypes to address the challenges of a specific disaster-response scenario could save lives and money. In the future, printers might even use disaster debris as raw materials to print temporary shelters for people displaced by hurricanes or typhoons.

Mobile labs, such as the Army’s Ex Lab, could also be more broadly deployed to print location-specific parts: for example, a replacement part for a broken water pump handle, a climate-resilient shelter, or an infrastructure fix when parts or specialized engineers are not locally available. A new generator, for example, could be printed on the spot.

Democratization of preparedness and response. Encouraging the development of 3D printing in vulnerable nations, and giving at-risk communities access to networks of engineering experts, could improve resilience in fragile places and open up new markets. Indeed, social media has set a precedent for popularizing technologies in the service of promoting both justice and security (for example, see the role of independent blogger Eliot Higgins in confirming the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government in Syria).

By encouraging open-source 3D printing, solutions could essentially be sourced globally and printed locally. A community anticipating or experiencing climate threats could present its concerns to an online global platform, where experts might quickly suggest a strategy or even transfer ready-to-print technological solutions.

De-globalizing hazards. 3D printing can also help mitigate the “globalization of climate hazards,” wherein a natural hazard in one place can have a significant impact on security thousands of miles away. For example, a 2011 flood inundated Japanese factories that were the only ones in the world manufacturing specific car parts. This brought Honda assembly lines in the United States screeching to a halt. Climate models predict an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts. With 3D printing, the ability to cheaply and easily download and print the missing parts could buffer manufacturers from unexpected breaks in the supply chain precipitated by these extreme events.

The effects of natural disasters extend far beyond individual companies. In 2012, a severe drought temporarily halted the transport of goods down the Mississippi River, affecting the entire region. This is the type of problem likely to become more common in a changing climate. The ability to print goods where they are needed would clearly decrease vulnerability to droughts and other disruptive weather events. Essentially, 3D printing could help de-globalize manufacturing, which would enhance the resiliency of markets to climate shocks.

Increasing accessibility. Many places in the world remain difficult to reach because of remoteness, conflict, disaster, or government hostility. 3D printing can act as the 21st-century version of the Berlin airlift. But instead of dropping supplies from airplanes, 3D technology can be used to print supplies—and perhaps even to print more printers. This could be particularly effective for disaster risk reduction or post-disaster assistance in remote areas, including some of the world’s most fragile and conflict-ridden states. The US military, for example, already has the capability to print unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), which have proved helpful in search and rescue missions, as well as environmental monitoring and disaster relief.

Enhancing energy efficiency. 3D printing could also help increase energy efficiency, including for the US military (with important implications for operational effectiveness and minimizing resupply mission casualties), reduce its carbon footprint, and set an example for the broader economy. 3D printing is inherently energy efficient. According to the US Department of Energy, additive manufacturing, on average, uses 50 percent less energy and saves up to 90 percent on materials costs compared with traditional manufacturing. Because 3D printing is additive rather than subtractive, the printer prints out only the desired product and minimal support structures, greatly reducing the amount of materials used. And since additive manufacturing involves sending data around the world via the Internet—rather than sending physical materials around the world on trucks, ships and planes—shipping, packaging, and storage is reduced significantly, which saves energy.

3D printing can also increase efficiency in both the manufacturing process and the final product. Airbus, for example, was able to print a one-part fuel tank for a jet airplane, which normally would have required welding together 10 metal parts. The airline industry is using 3D printing to make aircraft parts lighter and more resilient. This has allowed Boeing, for example, to reduce the weight of some of its aircraft by as much as 20 percent. Since a lighter airplane means less fuel is needed to propel it, this has reduced fuel costs by as much as 50 percent. Should 3D printing spread beyond its current limited niche, the ability to print replacement parts—perhaps from recycled materials—rather than buy new products, could also contribute to a reduction in both waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

A necessary disruption. As with all disruptive technologies, 3D printing is not without its risks. A new toolbox can be used for both positive and negative purposes. Congress, for example, has already banned the printing of guns. 3D printing could also give non-state actors, such as terrorist groups, the potential to print biological and chemical weapons. But provided that societies get ahead of the risks by developing legal norms and regimes, the opportunities far outweigh the risks. 3D printing, at home and abroad, presents an opportunity for US global leadership in both the advancement of a new manufacturing paradigm, and in climate preparedness.

If the United States, including the Department of Defense, truly believes that climate change presents “immediate risks to national security,” then developing all the tools necessary to combat those risks should be a high priority. 3D printing, given its potential utility in helping us adapt to and mitigate climate risks, and doing so cost-effectively, is one tool that deserves close attention.

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