When it was first introduced, 3D printing was looked upon as something of a novelty; ideal for printing items like small pieces of art or perhaps custom puzzles. Now, due to advances in the printers, new technologies, cutting edge start-ups and forward-thinking executives, 3D printing is quickly becoming a manufacturing standard.

The auto industry is one of the industries that have embraced 3D printing. The fact that the auto industry is taking advantage of the 3D printing technology is not surprising. As Dave Paratore of NanoSteel points out “About half the steel in cars being used today didn’t exist even 15 to 20 years ago.” Industry analysts state that using 3D printing is making autos lighter and stronger and advancing the industry in a number of ways.

The current 3D printing market in the automobile sector is about a $600 million a year industry; a number that is expected to grow substantially as new print technologies become available. Lindsay Lewis, an account manager at Syngergeering, says that “3D printing for mass-production parts can be challenging. I feel 3D printing will remain mostly valuable to lower-volume production. This might mean higher-end vehicles or military vehicles. Also, there is a new trend in the automotive industry for remanufacturing. This is to reduce inventory or generate parts that OEMs may not be producing or storing anymore. Usually, re-manufacturing will be for vehicles that are older, say 15 to 20 years.”

The 3D printing process is appealing to the auto industry for a number of reasons. Prototype vehicles and parts can be made more easily, waste is minimised, complete assemblies can be printed, eliminating the need for assembling the various components. Plus, shipping costs may be reduced. Instead of relying on shipping container transport, the parts can simply be printed at the needed location.

There are a Few Challenges…

First 3D printing is relatively slow, however the time needed to print a part has steadily dropped and company executives predict they will rival convention manufacturing in just a few years. Printing with certain materials, such as metal, has been slow to evolve. Printers and the software are expensive. Many printers work best with composites which automakers have not traditionally utilised.

Here are some of the ways that the industry is already using 3D printing.

  1. AUDI

AUDI has been using 3D printing technology for several years and recently launched a 3D printing facility in Ingolstadt. The German car manufacturer has teamed with the SLM Solutions Group to produce prototypes and spare parts. AUDI used one of SLMs printers to produce the metal water connectors for their W12 engine. The connectors were printed on demand.

  1. The University of Nottingham

Innovate UK gave the University of Nottingham’s Lattices for Automotive Components (FLAC) project a £368,286 grant from Innovate UK. The purpose of the grant was to investigate how 3D printing may create more fuel-efficient automobiles.

Using 3D printing, engineers were able decrease the density of components thereby reducing their weight. The layering process used in 3D printing also allowed for more complex structures, like including hollow airflow ducts

  1. Rolls Royce

Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös says that each bespoke vehicle that leaves the factory takes between four and seven months to produce. The luxury automobile maker has been working with 3D printing to increase the number of cars which can be produced in a year.

Currently about 10,000 components for the Phantom have been 3D printed. At the moment the company is only printing plastic components but plans for additive manufacturing to play a fairly large role in the future. Müller-Ötvös says company’s “long-term goal is to print bigger parts; maybe even bodies are possible.”

  1. Porsche

Car collectors can attest to the problems of finding replacement parts for rare and classic cars. The collector’s market for Porsche is one of the more active ones. The company’s Classic Car series has a short production run and stockpiling a large inventory of components is financially impractical. Producing spare parts after a production run is complete is also impractical bases on the costs of retooling.

Porsche is addressing this problem by using 3D printing for creating spare parts. This cost-effective method may prove to be useful in providing parts for owners of even rarer and classic Porsches in the future.

  1. Honda

The Japanese car company recently produced a new version of their Micro-Commuter single seat vehicle. 3D printing was used to produce the body and a majority of the panels. The company has not announced plans for expanding 3D printing technology to include the Japanese imports of other countries or for producing Japanese car parts for export.

In addition to being a benefit for manufacturers, the advances in 3D printing may well be a benefit to car enthusiasts worldwide. A number of companies are entering the market to offer collectors and ‘do-it-yourselfers’ the ability to print parts for customising their cars. Some companies plan to offer complete DIY vehicles as well and have printed several complete cars to demonstrate the feasibility of the concept.

The Personal Auto Market is not the only area where 3D Printing may be a Factor.

The Oakridge National Laboratory displayed a number of full-size 3D printed vehicles at the International Manufacturing Technology Show. The ORNL also announced plans to print a full-sized excavator live at an upcoming conference. If the technology continues to progress as many predict, items such as container handling forklifts, and warehouse forklifts will no longer need to be purchased and shipped but can be printed onsite.

Science fiction writers have “promised” us teleportation devices for decades. Many futurists feel that 3D printing is the precursor to such technology. The technology is already changing the automobile industry. It is not far-fetched to envisage a time when vehicle customers browse listings of parts or accessories and print them at home or at a local auto parts print kiosk. The future is here!

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