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Is three-dimensional (3D) printing a nuclear proliferation tool?

New publication from the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium on the technical limitations of 3D printing technology.
3D printing device. Photo: Shutterstock

New publication from the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium on the technical limitations of 3D printing technology.

Three-dimensional (3D) printing is an evolving technology that can produce objects from plastics and metals. It works by building up layers of material hardened by a laser. The process is driven by computers that generate the enabling laser beams from highly detailed computer drawings and models.

The parts that can be produced can be accurate copies of the enabling drawings, but they will have different material properties from items produced by traditional manufacturing such as casting, forging and machining.

Popular press and more serious analysts have speculated that a complete nuclear weapon or gas centrifuge could be built using a 3D printer, detailed and accurate computer drawings, and appropriate materials. However, the author of the paper, Robert Kelly, has found that very specialized starting materials such as plutonium powder or high explosives would be required and are not readily available.

In fact, there are many barriers to successfully manufacturing a complete nuclear weapon and in most cases 3D printing gives no advantage to a non-state proliferator, or even a state, trying to clandestinely build a weapon. This new publication, number 54 in the Non-Proliferation Papers series from the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium, examines the technical limitations of the technology and makes suggestions for how European export regimes can build up and maintain an awareness of cases where it could enable the bypassing of nuclear proliferation barriers.

Read the publication here.

Read more about the EU Non-proliferation Consortium here.

3D printing and export controls on missile technology: Challenges and ways forward – New SIPRI report

3D printing and export controls on missile technology: Challenges and ways forward – New SIPRI report
3D printing device. Photo: Shutterstock

SIPRI is pleased to announce the release of a new Background Paper ‘3D printing and missile technology controls’, originally part of a compendium of research papers compiled by the Missile Technology Control Regime on the occasion of their 30th anniversary.

Read the report here.

Additive manufacturing (AM), also referred to as ‘3D printing’, is widely characterized as a ‘disruptive technology’. It has been hailed for its potential to revolutionize the manufacturing industry by transforming existing modes of production, sales and transfers of goods and technologies in many industrial sectors. This new report critically examines the state of the technology and the extent to which AM poses a challenge to export controls, especially for missile technology.  

The report explores the remaining hurdles of the technology as well as its current applications in missile manufacturing and the wider aerospace industry. It emphasizes that this technology has not yet reached the ‘at the push of a button’ scenario that many envision or fear.

One of the key challenges to export controls, states the report, is that the capabilities of AM machines makes it difficult to distinguish between machines that are proliferation-relevant and those that are not.

The authors argue that a balance needs to be struck between creating barriers to proliferation and limiting the negative side effects these controls can have on legal trade and promising civilian applications of the technology. A key example of the difficulty of applying controls on the materials used in the AM process is controls on Titanium powders, which are used both to produce dental and other implants, and in the defence and aerospace industry for airplane parts and possibly for missiles.

Furthermore, the report explores how the implementation of controls on digital transfer of build files poses a profound challenge to export controls. This constitutes issues for both companies and states, and sheds light on the increasing importance of cybersecurity for AM. Controlling the transfer of build files through audit and record-keeping requirements may, however, be one of the most effective ways to implement AM controls, if properly applied and enforced, states the report.

The report discusses the potential to advance controls on AM in three particular areas: (a) controls on the export of AM machines; (b) controls on the materials used in the AM process; and (c) controls on the transfer of build files. By using this case study of AM technology, the report also highlights the challenge intangible transfers of technology pose for export controls, and the need for effective dialogue between states, companies and export control regimes.


About the report

An earlier version of this SIPRI Background Paper was made available to the delegations of the MTCR Partners participating in the Dublin Plenary in October 2017, as part of the ‘Compendium of Research Articles’ compiled by the Permanent Point of Contact of the MTCR to mark the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the regime.

Download the report.

New SIPRI papers on the proliferation challenges associated with transfers of software and technology and 3D printing

New SIPRI papers on the proliferation challenges associated with transfers of software and technology and 3D printing
Photo: Shutterstock.

SIPRI is pleased to announce the publication of two new papers, entitled ‘The challenge of software and technology transfers to non-proliferation efforts: Implementing and complying with export controls’ and ‘The challenge of emerging technologies to non-proliferation efforts: Controlling additive manufacturing and intangible transfers of technology’.

The effective regulation of transfers of software and technology presents a set of challenges for dual-use and arms export controls that are set to grow in the near future. Developments in cloud computing, for example, are increasing the volume of data that can be transferred electronically, raising questions about if and when controls on transfers of software and technology should apply. In addition, additive manufacturing (AM)—also known as 3D printing—is likely to increase the range and complexity of controlled goods that can be produced using transferred software and technology, raising concerns about new proliferation pathways.

The two SIPRI publications address the closely related issues of controlling transfers of software and technology and applying exports controls to AM. Taken together, the papers examine some of the most challenging issues that governments, companies and research institutes in the European Union (EU) and the wider world are facing when they seek to effectively implement dual-use and arms export controls. They also address a range of topics that are under active discussion within the multilateral export control regimes and in connection with the recast of the EU Dual-use Regulation.

Concretely, the conclusions highlight steps that different stakeholders can take to improve the consistency and effectiveness of software and technology controls as well as summarizing potential options and considerations when expanding controls on AM.


About the publications

Draft versions of these two SIPRI papers were presented and discussed at a two-day workshop in Stockholm hosted by SIPRI in February 2018. The workshop was attended by representatives of companies, licensing and enforcement authorities, and technical experts. The papers were further revised on the basis of the feedback provided by participants. Funding for both the workshop and the production of the two papers was provided by the US Department of State’s Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) Program.

For more details on SIPRI work on dual-use and arms export controls, please visit here.

SIPRI briefs Australia Group on proliferation risks of additive manufacturing

SIPRI briefs Australia Group on proliferation risks of additive manufacturing
Three-dimensional bioprinter developed by the Russian company 3D Bioprinting Solutions. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

On 7 June, Kolja Brockmann, Researcher in the SIPRI Dual-use and Arms Trade Control Programme, briefed the annual plenary meeting of the Australia Group—a major multilateral export control regime made up of 42 states and the European Union—on the impact of additive manufacturing on biological weapons proliferation and export controls.

Brockmann was one of a few non-government experts invited to present on current developments in the area of chemical and biological weapons, related technologies and proliferation activities. His briefing highlighted developments in a technology of key importance: additive manufacturing (also referred to as 3D printing).

Drawing on the findings of a recent SIPRI report that he co-authored, ‘Bio Plus X: Arms Control and the Convergence of Biology and Emerging Technologies’, Brockmann provided an assessment of the proliferation risks that different techniques and applications of additive manufacturing currently pose with regard to biological weapons. He also discussed the export control challenges that additive manufacturing presents for the export control regimes, national export control authorities and for research institutes and industry stakeholders. The briefing included recommendations for next steps to be taken by the Australia Group.


About the Australia Group

The Australia Group is one of four major multilateral export control regimes. It is an informal group of 42 states and the European Union that meets annually to exchange views and best practices on strategic trade controls, and maintains harmonized control lists in order to ensure that dual-use material, technology and equipment are not used to support chemical and biological warfare activities or programmes.


SIPRI co-hosts side event at the Ninth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention

SIPRI co-hosts side event at the Ninth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention
Dr Wilfred Wan, Director of SIPRI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme, chairing the side-event ‘Biorisk Awareness Across Stakeholder Communities’

On 2 December, SIPRI and the Government of the United Kingdom co-hosted a side event in Geneva at the Ninth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention entitled ‘Biorisk Awareness Across Stakeholder Communities’.

Dual-use developments across the biological sciences bring challenges to the governance framework centred on the Biological Weapons Convention. This has become a particular concern in recent years, as the same factors transforming biomedical research can also remove technical barriers to the development, production and use of biological weapons. In 2019 SIPRI produced a report entitled ‘Bio Plus X’ on the convergence of biotechnology with emerging technologies and the implications for biosecurity risks. Yet much has already changed since then, and the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic reinforces the need to ensure that innovation in the biological sciences will never be misused, accidentally or deliberately.

Efforts to engage non-state stakeholders including the scientific community, industry, academia and other civil society actors are essential to integrating safety and security considerations and fostering a culture of responsibility that can bolster the regime. With the support of the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, SIPRI is developing a practical toolkit for practicing responsible biological science, which targets academics and researchers in the life sciences. The side event broadly examined the degree to which cross-sectoral engagement on biosecurity exists and explored the best ways to incentivize different stakeholder groups to create a more open and collaborative biosecurity community. The discussion also focused on ways to leverage existing bio-risk assessment tools and instruments for more effective awareness raising as well as what steps can be taken by states to facilitate a ‘whole of society’ approach to risk awareness.

Ambassador Aidan Liddle, UK Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, opened the event. Dr Wilfred Wan, Director of SIPRI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme, chaired the discussion among a group of distinguished experts: Dr Mirko Himmel (University of Hamburg), Dr Filippa Lentzos (King’s College London), Kathryn Millett (, and Dr Emmanuelle Tuerlings (World Health Organization). The event also featured reflections from Ambassador Maria Teresa T. Almojuela, Permament Representative of the Republic of the Philippines to the Conference on Disarmament.


3D Printing Missiles on Demand? Additive Manufacturing as a Challenge to the Missile Technology Control Regime

3D Printing Missiles on Demand? Additive Manufacturing as a Challenge to the Missile Technology Control Regime
Photo: Unsplash

Online event

Additive manufacturing (AM), often referred to as 3D printing, has been an important topic on the agenda of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the multilateral export control regime focused on missiles and other uncrewed delivery systems. AM has become an attractive technology for the aerospace sector due to its ability to produce a wide range of complex items, including intricate missile engine components with internal cooling channels. At the same time, AM poses proliferation risks because it could help enable states and non-state actors to circumvent states’ export controls and produce items with new performance characteristics for missile programmes.

This webinar brings together a distinguished panel of technical and policy experts to discuss the challenges AM poses to export controls, and how they can be addressed through national and multilateral export control instruments such as the MTCR. The panel will explore what the MTCR does to address the proliferation challenge AM poses in the area of missiles, why a diverse set of stakeholders contributes to this proliferation risk, and how strengthened outreach to industry, research and AM service providers may be part of the solution to reducing these risks.

The webinar is the first in a series within a larger project conducted by SIPRI on ‘Quo Vadis MTCR: The Missile Technology Control Regime at a Crossroads’, with generous support from the German Federal Foreign Office and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.


Welcoming remarks

Dr Sibylle Bauer, Director of Studies, Armament and Disarmament, SIPRI; Chair, European Union Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Consortium.

Nicolas Plattner, Head of the Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Section; Deputy Head, International Security Division, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.


Kolja Brockmann, Researcher, Dual-use and Arms Trade Control Programme, SIPRI; Project lead, ‘Quo Vadis MTCR: The Missile Technology Control Regime at a Crossroads’.


Andrew Horton (personal capacity), Chair, Technical Experts Meeting, MTCR; Government Senior Advisor on Export Control Technical Policy, British Government.

Robert A. Shaw, Program Director, Export Control and Nonproliferation Program, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Dr Andrea Viski, Director, Strategic Trade Research Institute; Editor-in-Chief, Strategic Trade Review; Adjunct Professor, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University.


Watch a recording of the webinar here.


Event contacts (SIPRI)

Kolja Brockmann