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Road to the 3D Printed Car: 5 Ways 3D Printing is Changing the Automotive Industry

Although you won’t be able to buy a 3D printed car at the dealership anytime soon, 3D printing has for many years been a vital part of the development process for automobiles. Recently, however, we’re starting to see 3D printing use cases gain a foothold throughout manufacturing.

3D printing can add enormous value to supply chains, unlocking a broad spectrum of production applications. The technology is growing more workable and affordable, with companies able to bring additive manufacturing in-house to support processes on the factory floor. New, resilient materials are opening opportunities for producing high precision, functional 3D prints that can stand in for final parts and offer customization opportunities and high performance, but that’s just the beginning.

Read on to find five key ways 3D printing is powering innovation across the automotive industry, from design to manufacturing and beyond.

1. Reshaping the Prototyping Process

Prototyping has historically been the most common use case for 3D printing in the automotive industry. Thanks to the vastly increased speed at which prototyping can be carried out using 3D printing, rapid prototyping has become virtually synonymous with 3D printing, and the technology has revolutionized the product development process.

With 3D printing, automotive designers can quickly fabricate a prototype of a physical part or assembly, from a simple interior element to a dashboard or even a scale model of an entire car. Rapid prototyping enables companies to turn ideas into convincing proofs of concept. These concepts can then be advanced to high-fidelity prototypes that closely match the end result, and ultimately guide products through a series of validation stages toward mass production. In the automotive industry, this rapid validation is absolutely vital. “Pausing an automotive manufacturing line for even an hour can be hugely costly,” said Andrew Edman, Formlabs Product Design, Engineering, and Manufacturing Industry manager.

Using in-house stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing, designers and engineers at Ringbrothers can iterate freely, effectively, and affordably.

Prototyping used to be time consuming and therefore potentially expensive as a product goes through more iterations. With 3D printing, highly convincing and representative prototypes can be created within a day, at a much lower cost. Desktop 3D printers allow engineering and design teams to bring the technology in-house in order to increase iteration cycles and shorten the distance between idea and final product, strengthening their overall product development workflows.

2. Creating Custom, Complex, and High-Performance Parts

3D printing is ideal for producing custom parts at greatly reduced expense, empowering manufacturers with vast new capabilities in what they are able to produce and offer to their customers.

For smaller companies who place “custom” at their core—such as the custom car shop Ringbrothers—3D printing has provided ways of pushing the quality and creativity of their work, providing vital room to experiment with and perfect custom designs, without worry for the potential expense and time-intensive manufacturing processes that otherwise come with customization. 

Ringbrothers use 3D printing to create custom end-use parts like this air vent.

Larger companies are combining 3D printing technology with traditional means as well. Volkswagen recreated its iconic 1962 Microbus, replacing its gas engine with a 120 horsepower, 173 lb-ft torque electric drive. The “Type 20” concept also sports a variety of improvements enabled by 3D printing, including generatively-designed cast aluminum wheels. Even the hubcaps are 3D printed: although they look like stamped steel, they were actually produced on a Formlabs SLA 3D printer and then electroplated to take on the look and feel of metal parts.

The hubcaps on this VW Microbus were 3D printed on a Formlabs SLA 3D printer and then electroplated and polished to look just like chromed steel. (images: VW)

The Bentley Speed 6 is yet another example. The luxury car manufacturer utilized advanced metal 3D printing technology to create far more detailed, intricate parts (grille, side air vents, door handles, and exhausts) than what’s available in its current production models.

Bentley used metal printing technology to create intricate parts with micro-scale precision. (source: Bentley)

But 3D printing applications are not limited to classics, and concept or exhibition models. Twikit’s customization software has allowed British automaker MINI to offer mass personalization services for their cars using 3D printing, giving buyers full control over design. Customers can customize inner or outer components of their vehicle with a range of fonts, patterns, and images, and review their design using 3D visualizations. Vitally, for the market viability of such a project, the cost reductions enabled by 3D printing have made this form of personalization affordable to the public.

MINI’s collaboration with Twikit gives buyers full control over the design to customize inner or outer components of their vehicle. (source: Twikit)


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3D printing has also allowed for the creation of parts that simply could not be produced by any other means. Bugatti’s eight-piston monobloc brake caliper is a key example. Bugatti favors titanium for certain components due to the material’s high performance characteristics, but processing the metal with conventional methods is costly and challenging. The use of 3D printing not only enabled Bugatti to produce the caliper at the required scale, but took its performance potential even higher, massively reducing the weight of the component while making it considerably stiffer and stronger than the conventional production alternative (aluminum).

Bugatti’s eight-piston monobloc brake caliper is the world’s largest functional titanium component to have been produced by 3D printing. (source: Bugatti)

3. Producing Tooling and Manufacturing Aids

Engineers use manufacturing aids to make manufacturing and assembly processes simpler and more reliable, reducing cycle times and improving worker safety. Automotive factories and part suppliers use thousands of custom jigs and fixtures, each tailored and highly optimized for end-use. The result is a proliferation of custom tools, adding significant cost and complexity to the manufacturing process.

Outsourcing the production of these custom parts to machining service providers who produce the parts from a solid billet of plastic or metal can delay production by weeks, while the long lead times also make it hard to adapt to changes on the factory floor. 

Additive manufacturing can cut the lead time to a few hours and also dramatically reduce costs when compared to outsourcing parts to an external vendor. As complexity doesn’t incur additional costs, the parts can also be better optimized for their end-use. New, resilient 3D printing materials have also allowed manufacturers to replace metal components in many cases with 3D printed plastic parts or to prototype and test the tools before committing.

As a result, the production of manufacturing aids by 3D printing is becoming one of the biggest applications of the technology.

Pankl Racing Systems uses 3D printed jigs to attach parts to the conveyor belt as they go through a series of machining stages.

For example, Pankl Racing Systems relies on a 3D printing station with multiple Formlabs SLA 3D printers to fabricate their vital production tools. In manufacturing parts for gearbox assemblies, each part the company produces requires a series of custom jigs, fixtures, and other tooling designed specifically for that part as they go through multiple stages of machining using automatic lathes. Using 3D printing, Pankl engineers managed to reduce lead time for jigs by 90 percent—from two to three weeks to less than a day—and decreased costs by 80-90 percent, leading to $150,000 in savings. 


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4. Solving the Spare Parts Problem

Spare parts have historically represented a challenge for the automotive industry. Demand by nature is sporadic and unpredictable, making the value of producing spare components a debatable financial decision in some instances. However, the value of products is more precarious and repairs more difficult in the absence of readily available spare parts. Producing spares in anticipation of later demand also requires great expenditure on storage.

3D printing is well-positioned to make a significant positive impact on the automotive industry’s spare parts problem. “I think the biggest factors [in solving the spare parts problem via 3D printing] are getting the materials that can match the performance of more traditional materials used for parts and cost-effectiveness. We’re getting closer to that,” Edman said. “It’s a question not so much of ‘will 3D printing take over production of spare parts?’ as ‘when?’”

With the use of CAD, designs for all parts can be kept as a digital copy, making the need to keep inventory obsolete. With the proliferation of benchtop 3D printers, a spare part could potentially be produced in-store upon customer request. The accessibility of the technology will encourage suppliers to open up new spaces to provide an easy supply of 3D printed spare parts.

Even parts that no longer exist can potentially be remade to requirement, on reverse engineered based on digital scans of existing parts. Older designs may find themselves with a new lease of life. “People have classic cars that are 50+ years old. Someday we might be able to support those in a more automated way, through 3D printing,” Edman said.

Ringbrother reproduced a Cadillac emblem for a custom oldtimer vehicle by 3D printing the shape and casting it into metal.

5. Easing General Parts Manufacture

As 3D printing becomes more affordable with respect to the cost of hardware and materials involved, we will see a progressive transition towards producing regular automotive parts.

3D printers can improve efficiency at the general parts manufacture stage. “Where you’ll see 3D printing [techniques become popular sooner] is where there are opportunities to use the benefits of additive to fold components together. You might have an assembly of six or seven automotive parts that can now be combined in a single printed part. You’re saving assembly time and cost even if the individual part might be more expensive,” Edman said. By consolidating parts, 3D printing methods can also help decrease weight and improve fuel efficiency.

The breadth of materials offered through 3D printing is starting to meet the mechanical requirements of different components of a vehicle. As additive methods reach cost parity with traditional methods (e.g., molding, die-casting), it will make more sense from a productive and financial point of view to incorporate 3D printing further into general parts manufacture.

+1. 3D Printed Cars

While a fully 3D printed car that is ready for market circulation is still some time away, there are some exciting projects that signal the direction in which the industry is heading:

EDAG’s Light Cocoon: This concept made by the independent automotive developer EDAG boasts a 3D printed branch-like load-bearing structure that is inspired by nature. Despite the fact that structure uses less material than a regular chassis, all requirements imposed on structurally relevant components are met. To make the chassis resilient to the elements, the structure is covered with fabric.

Besides weather resistance, the cover on EDAG’s Light Cocoon provides absolute freedom when it comes to design and individualization. (source: EDAG)

The Blade: The “world’s first 3D printed supercar” is designed to be produced out of—by supercar standards—low-cost materials such as carbon fiber tubes and aluminum rods, that are combined with generative designed 3D printed metal parts to achieve low weight and high performance.

The Blade is the “world’s first 3D printed supercar." (source: Divergent3D)

Strati: The world's first electric car to heavily utilize 3D printing during the production process made by Local Motors. The car consists of 50 individual parts—far less than the roughly 30,000 parts that make up a traditional vehicle. Its chassis and most structural elements were 3D printed in less than 24 hours, which the company aims to reduce to less than 10 hours.

Strati consists of 50 individual parts and took less than 24 hours to 3D print.

LSEV: Developed by the Italian company XEV, the LSEV could be the first “mass market” 3D printed electric car when it hits the market later this year. Apart from the chassis, the seats and the windshield, all the visible parts of the LSEV are also 3D printed. Thanks to the extensive use of 3D printing, the company has managed to reduce the number of components from 2,000 to only 57, resulting in a light design that weighs only 450 kilos.

The LSEV is the first “mass market” 3D printed electric car that’s expected to hit the market later this year.

Though these projects, and many other 3D printed car initiatives, remain in the conceptual stage, the degree to which 3D printing is sweeping across various areas of the automotive industry is striking. In some cases, 3D printing technology is pushing boundaries and helping achieve entirely new possibilities in design and production. In others, the technology is lowering production costs and saving time.

As the understanding of the value of 3D printing continues to spread through the industry, and as the technology and available material base grow ever more versatile, this growing trend will continue.

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