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3D Printing Experiences its First Protest at RAPID + TCT 2023

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At the 2023 RAPID + TCT event, the additive manufacturing (AM) industry experienced what may have been its first protest. On Wednesday, May 3, volunteers of an anti-war organization called Dissenters interrupted an all-female executive discussion to protest the participation of a member of the Boeing Corporation and its role in weapons manufacturing and conflict globally.

Reasons to Protest

In a conversation with 3DPrint.com, two members of the action explained why they chose to intervene in the panel. Warren, currently an undergraduate student, relayed that, when the group learned of the conference and the participation of Boeing representatives in it, the team saw an opportunity to execute its mission of exposing militarism in the U.S. Specifically, the #BoeingArmsGenocide campaign is attempting to prevent the state contributing to a planned Boeing facility in southern Illinois dedicated to building the MQ-25, a drone designed to refuel fighter jets. 

Dissenters at large doesn’t specifically target Boeing, but has some 30-plus chapters, mostly at college campuses, that focus on the big five weapons manufacturers: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. While exact numbers are difficult to sift through when it comes to military conflict, civilian casualties are a regular result of the weapons produced by large arms companies. For instance, after the 2016 Saudi bombing of a marketplace in Yemen that killed 107 civilians, including 25 children, fragments of Boeing JDAM bombs were found. That’s just one of countless incidents that date back to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Boeing aircraft, in which between 129,000 and 226,000 civilians were killed. 

“Part of our organization’s mission is to stigmatize militarism wherever it is. So, if someone has worked on F-18s, F-15s—these deadly weapons that we know are connected to use by repressive regimes all over the world—we want to call that out and not just let that be a normal part of everyday life. We think it’s important to ensure people understand the reality of the United States military,” Warren said. “We thought this panel was a good opportunity to do that because it’s an additive manufacturing conference where [the role of weapons production] might not necessarily be top of mind for a lot of folks. But the fact that Boeing’s additive manufacturing has been used for F-18s and F-15s and is going to be used for the MQ-25 drone that they’ll be manufacturing in Illinois—we clearly saw that link and just wanted to make sure people knew the reality of what that work is doing and the damage that it’s doing.”

Does Protesting Work?

The Illinois chapter of Dissenters, which sprung from activity at the University of Chicago, initiated its #BoeingArmsGenocide campaign when it came time for the corporation to renew its contract with the city of Chicago for its headquarters. Under the previous 20-year deal, the company got $2 million in tax credit from the state of Illinois, which Dissenters saw as unjust, given the revenues that the aerospace giant already made. In the course of its actions, Dissenters actually met with a city alderperson and the Office of the Inspector General to discuss the fact that some $2 million had gone to Boeing unaccounted for. Boeing ended up leaving Chicago for greener pastures in Arlington, Virginia, forgoing $2 million in the process

Dissenters activists protesting Boeing’s previous Chicago headquarters. Image courtesy of Dissenters.

“A lot of the first stage of our campaign was about canceling that tax credit, trying to reclaim that public money from going to a very profitable arms dealer and bringing it back [to the public] to make it available for housing, education, and mental healthcare,” Warren said. “What the campaign did play a role in was drawing a bunch of attention to the contract they had with the city. They weren’t actually meeting requirements about how many people were supposed to be working in the office to supposedly bring economic benefit to the city. Through our organizing, we brought a lot of public pressure on that, which meant Boeing didn’t receive the last $2 million of that contract. That is definitely a win that we created.”

After Boeing moved to another state, the group wanted to continue its momentum by applying pressure to the $8.7 million state annual tax credit that’s going to be applied to the drone facility. “Again, we’re trying to reclaim our resources to use for healthcare, institutions of care and things like that,” Warren added. 

Intersectionality and Weapons Manufacturing 

The fact that the panel was female-led and sponsored by Women in 3D Printing was not lost on the protestors. Josue, one volunteer who has been with Dissenters since near its inception circa 2018, said that the group was aware of the discussion’s participants and sponsorship and that all of the panelists were female, mostly women of color. However, the makeup and sponsorship of the panel didn’t deter #BoeingArmsGenocide from its planned action. 

“There’s a lot that needs to be done to address gender inequality, but it doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or a woman or women of color [making weapons for Boeing] because the work in itself is tied to militarism. It doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter what your identity is when the work that you’re doing is affecting marginalized communities around the world,” Josue said. “There are women around the world who are feeling the effects of Boeing’s work. More women in 3D printing is great, as long as the 3D printing work that they’re doing isn’t going to continue fueling these weapons manufacturers and, therefore, the oppressive regimes that typically harm and target women, gender minorities, and other minorities.”

Multiple studies have suggested that gender-based inequalities and violence are exacerbated as a result of military conflict. These were details known to Dissenters staff, the vast majority of which is made up of women and trans people, according to Warren. 

“We were even talking afterwards about how there were a lot of men at the conference and how hard it must be to be women in a male-dominated industry, but, that said, we want a world where women and trans people globally can follow their dreams in an equal and just society and be able to do it without throwing other women under the bus,” Warren said. “Women and trans people should be able pursue an interest in STEM, or any other field, in a way that’s collaborative and uplifts women and trans people the world over, including the women and trans people of the Philippines, of Palestine, of Kashmir. That’s our perspective: you can’t build a space of equality and justice and support militarism on top of that. So, we feel for the concerns of and the need for spaces like Women in 3D Printing, but that can’t coexist with militarism.”

3D Printing Weapons

Though Dissenters didn’t have a specific beef with AM, the group chose an apt venue for highlighting US militarism embedded in everyday life. While the general public may be concerned about the rise of 3D printed guns, the AM sector’s role in military weapons manufacturing goes nearly unquestioned. 

At a different panel, Major General Darren Werner discussed the possibilities of 3D printing a jointless tank hull using technology from MELD, led by CEO Nancy Hardwick.

3D printing has been used by defense companies since the technology’s inception, but it received a significant boost under the Obama administration when what has come to be called America Makes was founded. From the planning stages to the establishment of this pilot Manufacturing USA institution, military contractors have steered the ship. America Makes, run by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing & Machining, has invested in, via Department of Defense funds, or managed 97, out of a total 147, 3D printing projects (about 66 percent) related to military applications or with participation from military contractors. Even seemingly innocuous or even humanitarian projects, such as “Biomimetic Multijet Materials,” have supported the military apparatus. 

We can see that 3D printing has proliferated well beyond weapons manufacturing and into realms that were difficult to fathom back when America Makes was founded. However, we can also see that the military and its contractors still largely dictate the overall flight path for the technology, now under the goal of supply chain resilience. With the Biden administration and Congress’s slew of funding efforts, AM has become an insurance plan for manufacturers where defense contractors, as crucial portions of the supply chain, are primed to receive much of the investment. 

Now is the first time that people outside of AM have entered the scene to draw attention to the potential weaponized uses of the technology as part of a larger military system. And, as the industry grows, it won’t be the last. Defense contractors are regularly protested for their work outside of the 3D printing sector. As AM has been integrated into the supply chain, it stopped being used to simply prototype weapons and began directly producing them. This echoes the overall evolution of AM. Therefore, as members of the 3D printing industry begin to assert themselves as political entities in protesting events like the war in Ukraine, they will be held to account for other incidents of which they didn’t purposefully choose to select to promote. For instance, in its ability to make polluting industries like aerospace and oil and gas more efficient, thus reducing their carbon footprints, is AM actually extending the polluting lives of these firms?

In turn, the protest brings up a number of questions, including how effective the action was, whether or not it was executed at the right venue, and if individuals in the world of manufacturing, additive or otherwise, are responsible for the products they develop. However, the biggest question that Dissenters raises may be what the cost is for development and growth. With every investment, is the sector going to continue expanding at the direction of weapons manufacturers or will its members be able to leverage the capabilities of the technology for the greater social good, such as decarbonization?

A larger issue it may raise is whether or not it’s even possible at this point in history to escape working at the behest of the larger military-industry-complex that Eisenhower warned about decades ago. However, if such an escape is impossible, is it more feasible to intervene within the apparatus or from what would appear to be the outside?

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