San Diego-based Formalloy shows a 3D-printed metal piece, made in roughly 90 minutes, at the Frontier Tech Forum in December 2016. Photo: DPA

Robert Shaw, a non-proliferation analyst at California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, says North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may have found an ideal way to accelerate his WMD (weapons of mass destruction) program by tapping so-called 3D printing technology.

How does “additive manufacturing” like 3D printing work? It’s a very advanced process that uses small or large machines to create three-dimensional objects from digital files.

It does this by turning an object into thousands of tiny slices made from metal powder or plastic resin. The process is so precise it re-creates moving parts such as levers or wheels as part of the same object.

While complex rocket engines and circuits cannot be replicated through 3D printing alone, the process is far more efficient than machine tools that cut and shape an object from a larger piece of material.

The technology is spreading so fast that it may be impossible to keep it out of the hands of countries such as North Korea.

Smaller 3D printers made by Dell and other companies are used by many homes and businesses. Industrial-scale 3D equipment is being used widely by multinationals such as Lockheed and General Electric.

The US Army unveiled a 3D-printed grenade launcher named “R.A.M.B.O.” in March. The weapon also fires 3D-printed grenades.

The US military is moving forward to mass-produce rifles and other weapons via 3D printing, and US aircraft carriers are already using the technology to make custom drones at sea.

The potential boon to North Korea through 3D printing, according to Shaw, was underscored in 2016 when a group of University of San Diego students launched a rocket with a fully 3D-printed engine.

Home-built 3D printer rockets are well within reach and one can assume that terrorist groups are looking into 3D printing for different types of weapons production. Shaw notes that arms traffickers and other criminal actors can also use 3D printing-based manufacturing to create new illicit supply chains.