Asymmetric Dialogue

An Instant PLA: Just Add 3D Printing

Summary In the PRC, the promise of 3D printing (三维打印 or 3D打印技术) has stretched the boundaries of possible future applications.
In the PRC, the promise of 3D printing (三维打印 or 3D打印技术) has stretched the boundaries of possible future applications. The PRC is pushing ahead with innovative ways of employing 3D printing across all sectors of its economy, from prosthetics to titanium-based aerospace parts, to a sustainably-built bus stop shelter outside Shanghai (Winsun, 2017). The PRC is also pioneering concepts and applications for 3D printing of materiel, weaponry, and munitions for use by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

This article reviews available literature from the PRC, including both military and civilian academic and scientific sources, to illustrate evolving views of the development and possible deployment of 3D printing. The nascent and notional concepts espoused in these articles stretching back to 2013 were important in laying the groundwork for many current 3D printing advances. As Wang Feiyue, a director at both the National Defense University of Technology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences states, quoting an old Chinese proverb, one must “cross the river by feeling the stones” (摸着石头过河) [1].
PRC Views of 3D Printing Technology
3D printing falls under the broad umbrella of advanced manufacturing (先进制造业) technology which is divided between “subtractive” and “additive” manufacturing. Subtractive manufacturing (减法制造) is the process in which an item is created by the removal of material through methods such as drilling or lathing. Conversely, additive manufacturing (AM; 增材制造/加式制造) is the process of adding material to create an item. Pioneered in the 1980s but still considered a new form of AM, 3D printing is the ability to fabricate objects by constructing them over a period of minutes, hours, or days using a “printer” capable of laying down one very precisely defined layer of a material after another, eventually forming the completed object.
As Hua Rong from Rockwell Automation China points out, a variety of materials can be used to fabricate objects, including resin, plastic, or even metal [2]. It is important to note that the field of 3D printing, as part of AM, remains dynamic as new concepts, technical definitions, standards, techniques, and follow-up technologies evolve. As such, PRC sources sometimes refer to 3D printing and AM as one in the same, while other sources make minor distinctions between the two based on the type of material created or process employed. For this article, 3D printing or AM will be used as cited in the original PRC sources.
Even though Western standards identify upwards of ten 3D printing methods, the PRC sources reviewed in 2015 list only six 3D printing methods (ISO, 2015; ALL3DP, 2018) [3]. The six processes include: Fused Deposition Modeling (熔融沉积成型), Selected Laser Sintering (选择性激光烧结), Selective Laser Melting (选择性激光熔融), Stereolithography Appearance (立体光刻), Electron Beam Melting (电子束熔化), and Laminated Object Manufacturing (分层实体制造) [4] [5]. This discrepancy in methods is likely because of the rapidity with which this technology has advanced since 2015. Despite the differences in the number of methodologies, 3D printing technology essentially breaks down into “what” and “how” material is added and joined. 3D printers themselves are quite intricate and include both hardware and software components. Hardware generally includes the printer assemblies, the nozzles, and the requisite mixture of feedstock required for fabrication, among other components. Meanwhile, software consists of specified supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and large, memory-intensive blueprints required for production, known as computer-aided design files (CADs) (电脑辅助设计).
Fabricating National Rejuvenation
AM aligns with China’s national strategic objective to become a science and technology superpower (科技强国) through initiatives at all levels of government. Because 3D printing relies heavily on advances in both software and hardware, 3D printing falls squarely in broader efforts within China to promote “informatization” (信息化). Furthermore, advances in 3D printing can be used to boost not only civilian industries, but also military ones as well, making it a good fit for the PRC’s program of  “military-civil fusion” or “civil-military integration” (军民融合; China Brief, April 9, 2018). Two especially noteworthy programs in the context of 3D printing and civil military fusion are “Made in China 2025” and the PRC’s 13th Five-Year-Plan (China State Council, May 8, 2015; China Daily, 2017) [6].
The US Department of Defense’s 2018 report to Congress on military and security developments involving the PRC points out that the collaboration between the PRC’s Ministry of Science and Technology and the PLA Central Military Commission’s Science and Technology Commission described in the 13th Five-Year Plan-Military-Civilian Fusion Science & Technology Developmental Guide make that document a “roadmap for military-civilian fusion efforts in the next five years”, one meant to benefit both the PRC economy and the PLA through a specific focus on advanced manufacturing techniques. Also, the “plan aims to develop internationally competitive leading enterprises; improve technical, equipment, and quality standards to international levels; and create a long-term industrial supply chain and perfect mass production” (Office of the Secretary of Defense, May 16, 2018) [7].
Conflicting PRC Views of the 3D Printing Horizon
Linking his support to these state-directed efforts and the “Thousand Talents Program” (千人计划), Wang Feiyue champions the integration of fields such as big data (大数据) and 3D printing with Chinese intelligence and military capabilities [2]. He begins by pointing out that 3D printing has the potential to usher in major changes on the battlefield, from logistics to armaments to combat operations, since “any computer that can connect to a source can become a production plant.” Additionally, 3D printing is an “industrial and equipment revolution” that can harness society to “socially manufacture” (社会制造中) items in real-time, an ability that could be harnessed for military manufacturing as required. In Wang’s view, 3D printing offers three advantages: flexibility, production of both simple and complex items, and production capability for a large inventory and a variety of items. Advancing his assessment beyond 3D printing, Wang augurs a broader swath of the future digital landscape in which advances in cyberspace synch with advances 3D printing. He concludes that existing military systems “must improve and transform” as a result. If that can be achieved, it will aid in the goals toward national rejuvenation and fulfillment of the “Chinese Dream” (中国梦). However, he ominously warns that if China does not properly align and balance between the civilian and military systems, such as 3D printing, then it could spell disaster on par with the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Writing about the nascent AM industry in China in 2013, Eric Anderson of the University of California San Diego provides an initial look at the key players, the role of the government, and specific applications for AM in the aerospace industry. At the time, Chinese sources appeared to be mixed on the potential of AM for China, viewing it as both a threat and opportunity. Some viewed 3D printing as a threat because it challenges traditional manufacturing techniques and interests within the PRC. Meanwhile, others expressed fear and anxiety that if China does not become a major player in 3D printing, it could lose critical ground in leveraging this new technology. At the same time, some found that 3D printing is pregnant with possibilities for China to “regain market share in advanced manufacturing” and “leapfrog” global competitors in this developing field [8]. In a follow-up analysis on the aviation and aerospace industries, it was found that China has already achieved significant savings in production time, cost, and material on account of AM. 3D printed parts have been used in the COMAC C919 passenger jet and various military aircraft such as the Y-20 transport and J-15, J-16, J-20, and J-31 jet fighters [9].
In contrast to Anderson’s assessment, Jin Dayuan from the No. 36 Research Institute of China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC)contends that 3D printing will not replace traditional form of manufacturing, rather it will complement. Specifically citing American advances in 3D printing, which is common throughout Chinese sources, Jin holds up American efforts to 3D print parts for the F-35 fighter andSpaceX’s Dragon 2 space capsule as examples. However, Jin expounds upon an observation by Anderson that military applications should include the manufacture of complex and rare aviation parts–another common and regularly noted opportunity for China to leverage. Jin also sees additional opportunities in space-based manufacturing (太空制造), thereby reducing loads for launch and greater mission flexibility; production of “mini-unmanned aerial vehicles (微型无人) and parts (无人机暂用零件);” military electronics such as a 2013 production of a satellite antenna by Shenzhen Weihang Magnetoelectric Co., Ltd.; and the production of parts for regular and emergency repairs and general maintenance.
In line with Jin’s last point, the repair of damaged military materiel is echoed by writers in Tactical Missile Technology, a PRC military journal[10]. Separately, analysts in Mechanical Engineering and Automation believe 3D printing can manufacture and repair light-weapons such as theAmerican AR-15 [5]. Referencing American Naval proposals, the same analysts assert 3D printers could be deployed on ships and act as “factories” for materiel, such as drones, which will save space and inventory overhead. Around the same time as that publication, the PLA-Navy unveiled that it had used 3D printers onboard its naval vessels (3Dprint.com, 2015). Finally, writers in another PRC military journal emphasize the opportunities for prototyping and research that 3D printing could afford the PLA [11]. There is one glaring omission that the PRC sources did not consider, however, that portends the danger inherent with AM. Proliferation of illicit materiel, from 3D printed small arms to centrifuges, is of significant concern as the technology circumvents both traditional export control regimes and internal controls[12]. China already has a significant, illicit gun trade problem (China Brief, December 21, 2015).
Conclusion
3D printing has an important role to play in the PRC’s strategic objective of becoming a science and technology superpower, with significant implications for both civilian industries and for PLA capabilities. Although analysts within the PRC are divided between those who perceive 3D printing to be a threat to traditional manufacturing industries, and those who consider it an indispensable part of the PRC’s superior military capabilities, collaboration between the PRC central government and PLA science and technology commissions has nevertheless resulted in the increasing incorporation of 3D printing technology in military manufacturing. If, as appears likely, the PRC remains at the forefront of civilian applications of this emerging technology, there is every likelihood that the PLA will likewise stand at the cutting edge of its military applications.