A 3D-printed office in Dubai

It’s touted as one of the next big disruptions in the construction space, but researchers from NYU have warned that 3D printing could be vulnerable to cyberattack.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a US$4 billion (AU$5.27b) industry expected to reach US$16b (AU$21b) by 2020.

For the construction sector, the application of 3D printing in now ramping up. Just last week the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai announced amendments to building regulations to encourage 3D-printed buildings. The city’s 3D printing strategy aims for it to be a leader in 3D printing technology, with a target of 25 per cent of construction to be 3D printed by 2030.

And in China the world’s first 3D-printed apartment – a five-storey, 1100-square-metre building – was revealed last year.

But the NYU researchers are urging caution, warning that hackers could alter 3D printing construction without detection, causing defects that could weaken materials and have disastrous outcomes.

The paper, published in JOM, the journal of the Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, examined two aspects of 3D printing that have cybersecurity implications: printing orientation and insertion of fine defects.

“These are possible foci for attacks that could have devastating impact on users of the end product, and economic impact in the form of recalls and lawsuits,” associate professor of mechanical engineering at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering Nikhil Gupta said.

3D printing builds a product layer by layer based on a CAD file, which manufacturing software deconstructs and orients a printer head to recreate in ultra-thin layers.

The orientation of a product during printing can alter strength by up to 25 per cent, the researchers said. But because CAD files don’t contain instructions on printer head orientation, hackers could alter the process without detection.

Internet-connected 3D printers could also be hacked to introduce internal defects as components are printed, the researchers found.

They tested adding defects smaller than a millimetre between printed layers and found they were undetectable using common monitoring techniques like ultrasonic imaging. But when exposed to fatigue conditions like heat, light and humidity, the materials could become susceptible to the defects.

“With 3D printed components, such as metallic molds made for injection molding used in high temperature and pressure conditions, such defects may eventually cause failure,” Dr Gupta said.

Cybersecurity researcher Said Karri warned that supply chains would need to be educated on the possibility of cyberattacks.

“With the growth of cloud-based and decentralised production environments, it is critical that all entities within the additive manufacturing supply chain be aware of the unique challenges presented to avoid significant risk to the reliability of the product,” he said.

“New cybersecurity methods and tools are required to protect critical parts from such compromise.”