If you're invested in 3D Systems, Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS ) , one of their smaller peers, or simply following the 3-D printing space, you know that there are innovative applications for this disruptive technology that are constantly popping up. However, you might find that "fighting terrorism" jumps out as particularly unique. But that's exactly what the Federal Bureau of Investigation plans to do with a Stratasys 3-D printer.
The Department of Justice recently posted a Synopsis/Solicitation for the acquisition of a Stratasys Objet24 3-D printer to be used within the FBI.
How can a 3-D printer help fight the bad guys?
Not surprisingly, the Feds didn't disclose details about how exactly the G-Men plan to use the 3-D printer. However, we do know that Stratasys Objet24 3-D printer will be used for fighting terrorism, as FBI spokesperson Ann Todd wrote this in an email to NextGov.com:
The 3D printer is cutting-edge technology that will be used by the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center to enhance their capabilities in exploiting improvised explosive devices.
Whether "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs, refer to bombs, guns, or both is anyone's guess. It's probably safe to say that the printer will be used to study the range of weapons that can currently be manufactured -- or might be able to be made in the future -- using 3-D printing. Like all technology, 3-D printing can be used for good or evil purposes. Terrorists and others with nefarious intentions surely will attempt to turn 3-D printers into little weapons factories. There's also been speculation that the FBI could use the printer to rebuild exploded bombs, which could be helpful in recreating crime scenes.
The Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, or TEDAC, is a Quantico, Virginia-based organization that was established in 2004 "to serve as the single interagency organization to receive, fully analyze, and exploit all terrorist IEDs of interest to the United States," according to Wikipedia. Further, "TEDAC coordinates the efforts of the entire government, from law enforcement to intelligence to military, to gather and share intelligence about these devices -- helping to disarm and disrupt IEDs, link them to their makers, and prevent future attacks."
Based upon what I've read in several sources, this appears to be the FBI's first purchase of a 3-D printer. However, this won't be the Feds' first foray into using the technology in anti-terrorism activities. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- a partner in TEDAC -- used a 3-D printer last year to print and test a 3-D printed gun made entirely of plastic, though didn't disclose whether it had purchased the printer. The ATF used the blueprints that were infamously made public on the Internet to print the gun. Obviously, metal-free guns present a huge concern because they can't be detected by metal detectors.
Why a Stratasys 3-D printer?
The DOJ's Synopsis/Solicitation specified a Stratasys Objet24 system. What's so special about this particular model?
The Objet24, which has a base price of about $20,000, is capable of printing extremely detailed objects. According to Stratasys, this model can "print in layers thinner than a human hair for astonishingly accurate prototypes." Additionally, this printer is "the first desktop system to print realistic models with small moving parts, thin walls and smooth, paintable surfaces." The printer's build box is 9.45 by 7.87 by 5.9 inches.
Here's what the Justice Department said in its post:
The bureau has a requirement for a Stratasys Objet24 Desktop Personal 3D printer to support the advanced technical exploitation of evolving and existing high technology explosive devices The Objet24 Desktop Personal 3D printer is the only instrument capable of producing the high accuracy and resolution results to meet Agency testing standards. The printer also is the only one capable of meeting FBI support data recovery and thermal environment requirements. The Objet24 model is the only 3D printer that satisfies all the technical requirements of the FBI.
That's quite an endorsement of the Objet24 -- and Stratasys. This surely means that the FBI will come knocking on Stratasys' door again should it want to add siblings to its latest tool in the war on terrorism. Additionally, it certainly seems that other U.S. government agencies, as well as our foreign government allies, would also favor this particular 3-D printer if they intended to use it for the same or similar purposes.
Foolish final thoughts
The FBI's specification of a particular model of a Stratasys 3-D printer as the only model acceptable for its purposes is certainly an endorsement of the quality of this printer -- and, therefore, of Stratasys.
The bigger picture is that this application is yet another example of the disruptive nature of 3-D printing, as this technology is increasingly being used in many new and innovative ways. And, yes, sadly we can surely expect the technology to be used for evil, as well as for good.
You don't need to be a G-Man (or Woman) to profit from 3-D printing
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