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Ensuring the Security of Additive Manufacturing

By Dave Morton – AeroDef Industry Development, SME

One of the key advantages of additive manufacturing is its digital thread, which allows for rapid communication, iteration, and sharing of a design model and its corresponding physical representation. While this enables an efficient design process, the flow of data opens vulnerabilities to cyber-attack. In manufacturing, these attacks are a threat to ensuring that products conform to their original design intent and to maintaining the safety of equipment, employees, and consumers.

Dave Morton, AeroDef Manufacturing Event Manager and SME’s Industry Development Manager for Aerospace and Defense

The emerging digital manufacturing environment, also known as Industry 4.0, is built on automation, cyber-physical systems, cloud computing and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). New technologies allow manufacturers to produce reliable products efficiently and to rapidly adapt to changing requirements from both civilian and military customers.


With this integration and flexibility, however, comes the potential for malicious actors to infiltrate key systems by gaining access to manufacturing networks. When successful, these bad actors can extort ransom (in exchange for access to data or system control), copy sensitive proprietary information that can be sold to other companies or other governments, or install software that can deleteriously affect a product’s performance. The potential consequences for national security cannot be ignored.

George “Nick” Bullen, technical fellow for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems (Redondo Beach, CA), noted that even though the risk of attacks from outside sources are high, threats often come from employees who may be disgruntled or lured by money. They can download or print out your manufacturing plan—and walk away with it.

“The entire process is so short now, from design engineering to manufacturing your part,” Bullen said. “You don’t have all the iterations it used to take to make something, so adversaries can get in very quickly and steal something that you’ve spent time and money creating.”

Additive manufacturing technologies require securing our manufacturing systems, and it’s even more critical because the design-to-production process is so much faster. In the past, replicating a design in a timely manner was difficult. Replicating designs has become much easier—and those designs are easier to steal.

“We live in a world where you must adapt to new technologies very rapidly to survive,” Bullen said. “Your competition is always changing. You want to stay ahead. If the restrictions in place to protect your products becomes so inhibitive that you can’t move ahead, what’s the point? You’re limiting your ability to compete. There has to be a balance between protection and taking full advantage of information transfer at a high rate.”

Manufacturers need to protect themselves by assessing the risk level at each part of their manufacturing process. Different levels of risk depend on the criticality of the part that you’re manufacturing. Fracture-critical or performance-critical parts require a high level of protection.

Most manufacturing systems are not even as well-protected as many business systems. This situation leaves the U.S. industrial base at great risk, imperiling the country’s economic stability and military advantage. And while new technologies, like additive manufacturing, enable more efficient design processes, we cannot ignore the subsequent potential security threats.

Manufacturing enterprises of all sizes and specialties must be aware, informed and then proactively address security vulnerabilities within and outside of their organizations.