Thinking of buying a 3D printer for your company or yourself? Be careful.

This exciting new technology is creating a host of problems and complications when it comes to the U.S.’s restrictions on exporting controlled technology.

3D printers have been in the news a lot lately. The new technology has been compared to the futuristic Replicators from Star Trek – able to produce virtually any object with nothing but a digital model, some generic material (usually plastic, but ceramic, metal, and other substances can also be used) and the push of a button. Clothing companies have started offering personalized 3D printed garments. One company now lets you buy a scale-model 3D printed action figure of yourself. NASA even funded the construction of an experimental machine for 3D printing pizza.

And then there was that 3D printed gun.

The issue of 3D printed weaponry was bound to arise sooner or later, with 3D printers being capable in principle of fabricating virtually any object from a pre-existing digital design. When an organization called Defense Distributed designed and posted on their website an open-source, 3D printable model of a fully functional gun, the U.S. State Department demanded that they remove it.  That’s because, since the software originated in the United States but was made available electronically to anyone – including non-U.S. citizens within the country and abroad, it’s very likely that posting the model online violated American export control laws. The law hasn’t managed to keep up with the technology, so at the moment it’s a bit of a gray area. But until its legal status gets cleared up, Defense Distributed has complied with the State Department’s request. But of course, the file itself is impossible to remove from the Internet entirely, and it has proliferated on torrent sites, free for download by anyone, anywhere.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As the technology matures, the relative simplicity and economy of 3D printing technology could make it the industry standard for manufacturing. What will this mean for the future of export control?

With new 3D printing technology becoming more widespread and cheaper to produce, staying on the right side of United States export regulations may be about to get a whole lot more difficult. The proliferation of 3D printers could end up having serious repercussions for American manufacturers and retailers, including companies that don’t deal with any banned or restricted items.

The U.S. has some very strict regulations for the sale, possession, and use of weaponry and ammunition. 3D printing is making those laws a lot more difficult to enforce. Anyone with access to a 3D printer and the software model for a firearm would be able to produce one, totally circumventing the license requirements or prohibitions for items like assault rifles. 3D printers could potentially produce even internationally banned items like chemical weapons and other illegal technology and substances.

Under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), any company that manufactures, sells, or exports defense items such as guns, dual-use items (that can have either military or civilian applications) like aircraft engine parts, or related technical information, has to register with the U.S. Department of State and get export licenses for any restricted items.

Because a 3D printer can produce an assault rifle just as easily as it can a doll house, in the future it could become mandatory to perform Restricted Party Screening on everyone who buys a 3D printer.

And since a US-owned 3D printer can be transformed into an arms factory at the push of a button, American companies with manufacturing facilities outside the country will face new challenges, even if their products have no military or defense applications. End-user restrictions are also likely to be tightened, as the State Department, the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), and other government institutions try to enforce their responsibility to keep items with military functionality out of the hands of terrorist groups and hostile foreign governments.

American manufacturers and retailers would be wise to keep an eye on the ongoing story of 3D printing to ensure they stay ahead of the curve as export control laws evolve in the future.