Obama plays up 3D printing's military applications under new manufacturing plans

The burgeoning technology could be useful to the Defense Department, the president said

3D printing has been attracting more attention in recent months as a tool to create gadgets, toys and miniature works of art. Now President Barack Obama thinks it can also play a role in strengthening the military and America's sagging manufacturing industry.

Several different applications of the technology were identified by the president as part of a US$200 million federally funded competition to create three manufacturing institutes across five federal agencies -- Defense, Energy, Commerce, NASA and the National Science Foundation. The competition, announced Thursday, is part of a broader $1 billion effort by the Obama administration to reinvest in American manufacturing "after shedding jobs for a decade," the White House press secretary said in a statement.

The three institutes, which will be selected through a competitive process led by the departments of Energy and Defense and will be announced later this year, will serve as regional hubs to bring together research and product development, industry, universities and community colleges, the White House said. The administration hopes the collaboration will foster a sort of "teaching factory" whereby students and workers at all levels could design, test and pilot new products and manufacturing processes.

3D printing is a way of making three-dimensional solid objects of practically any shape from a digital model. The technology, which is also known as "additive manufacturing," could have applications in a wide range of industries including defense, aerospace, automotive and metals manufacturing, the Obama administration said.

The three technology areas the competition is focusing on specifically are digital manufacturing and design innovation; lightweight and modern metals manufacturing; and next-generation power electronics. In lightweight and modern metals manufacturing, for instance, the administration cites accelerated market expansion for wind turbines, medical devices, engines and armored combat vehicles through the technology.

Obama's plans for the three manufacturing hubs were announced in February during his State of the Union address. "Our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing," he said.

A pilot institute in Youngstown, Ohio, was established last year through a $30 million federal grant. It consists of a consortium of manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges and nonprofit groups located throughout the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia "Tech Belt."

As part of that project, "a once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything," Obama said in February.

The manufacturing competition, however, comes as 3D printing faces increasing scrutiny from lawmakers who are concerned about one application in particular: guns.

One group in the spotlight now is Defense Distributed, a pro-gun nonprofit working to make 3D-printable gun designs freely available to everyone on the Internet. The group recently made major inroads toward that goal with its nearly completely 3D-printable plastic "Liberator" handgun.

As a result, several lawmakers are pushing to ban 3D-printed guns. California state Senator Leland Yee announced on Tuesday plans to introduce legislation to prohibit the use of the technology to create untraceable and anonymously produced guns. In April, U.S. Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, introduced the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act, to reauthorize the ban on undetectable firearms and to extend the ban to undetectable firearm receivers.

Some legal experts, meanwhile, say that 3D-printed guns currently constitute a legal gray area.

In its announcement, the Obama administration did not identify the development of specific types of firearms or weapons that the manufacturing hubs might eventually support.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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