They’ve been teasing us. For several years now, automotive manufacturers have worked 3D printing into their marketing.
Volkswagen had the Polo Principle (and their new Passat commercial). Porsche gave us the .STL file to create our own Cayman S prototypes.
But now they’re actually printing cars. And, no, these are not concept cars you see once at an automotive trade show and never hear of again. Some of them are already available on the open market. See a list of 3D printed cars here.
Why Would Car Companies Want to Use 3D Printing?
3D printing brings a lot of benefits to automotive manufacturing, for both manufacturers and consumers.
- Fewer materials. Currently cars require metals that are getting harder and harder to find and mine. (And there’s the ecological and logistical impacts of mining to consider.) Since 3D printing is additive rather than subtractive, less material is used.
- Lower cost materials. As those metals become harder to find, costs will start increasing. Car manufacturers have already started to move toward plastics, carbon fibers, and other materials. 3D printing allows them to continue that trend and use plastics and carbon fibers that are stronger and lighter.
- Less weight. Fewer pounds mean better MPG.
- Fewer steps in the manufacturing process. Vehicles currently pass through many stations, including assembly, welding, and painting. 3D printing removes (or at least greatly reduces) the number of steps.
- Move toward smaller factories. We’ve all seen the massive complexes needed to manufacture cars now. 3D printing could enable the manufacturers to set up smaller facilities in more places, which will also reduce costs and even allow manufacturers to produce at any facility with the appropriate 3D printers and materials.
- Lower manufacturing costs. The different machines and tools needed for traditional car manufacturing are cost-prohibitive for many new manufacturers. Even established car companies have a hard time keeping up with those expenses. But one 3D printer can produce multiple parts – you just need to change out 3D files and materials (if necessary).
3D Printing Car Parts
While the idea of printing an entire car has only become possible recently, car parts manufacturers have been utilizing 3D printing for vehicle parts for years. You may already be driving a vehicle that has had at least one part 3D printed.
Before the car parts themselves were 3D printed, companies were using 3D printing for rapid prototyping. Without the ability to print a single prototype and tweak the 3D file before printing another, some vehicles and products would have never made it through the design stage.
Don’t Throw Away that Old Car Just Yet
If you have an older vehicle, you know the pain of finding replacement parts. You hope there’s a spare around somewhere or a similar vehicle sitting in a junkyard without too much damage. Some manufacturers will build the part and send it to you – for exorbitant amounts of money.
But with 3D printing, the manufacturer could print your part without making drastic changes to their tools and equipment. They’d just need to upload the right 3D file. Your part could be printed and then a completely different part could be printed immediately after.
The Future of Car Repair
3D printing can do much more for the industry. What if you could bring your car in and, rather than being told you’ll have to wait days for your part to be delivered, the shop could print the new piece themselves in a few hours? Less wait time, no delivery charges, no back-and-forth every time the wrong part gets delivered.
Better Cars Through 3D Printing
3D printing isn’t a common practice for car companies yet, but with the work of those like Divergent 3D and Local Motors, we’re moving toward it. Soon manufacturers will be able to build vehicles that are lighter, carry less of an environmental impact, and easier to repair.