3D Printing Drives the Automotive Industry through Additive Manufacturing

February 25, 2020

3D printing is more than a gimmick. It’s driving the automotive manufacturing industry. Ford has been using the technology since 1986 and BMW has produced over 1 million 3D printed parts in the last 10 years. Automotive manufacturers are using the technology to reduce costs, increase efficiency and produce more complex vehicle parts from stronger materials.

Rapid Prototyping & Custom Tooling

With traditional prototyping, it can take weeks to create a custom part. When the part arrives, testing might reveal necessary alternations, requiring a redesign and more weeks of wait. Rapid prototyping using 3D printing creates a custom part in a matter of hours or days, allowing testing and redesign to be completed quickly and drastically reducing turnaround.

Such freedom and ease has also allowed automotive manufacturers such as Ford and Audi to create custom tools for workers. These tools are more lightweight than traditional ones, reducing the strain on workers and related injuries. When a tool wears out, it can be broken down and reused as material for future 3D printing, reducing waste and cost.

Currently, only skilled engineers can create the tools workers need. But in the future, Ford hopes to design an app that will allow untrained workers to create tools on their own, increasing efficacy and worker empowerment.

3D Printing for Obsolete & Custom Parts

Everyone loves a classic car. But when a part breaks, where is a spare to be found? Such parts are usually no longer produced, and it’s expensive for manufacturers to create a single custom piece.

Luckily, 3D printing eliminates the need for custom tooling, casts or die cutting. This makes custom parts more economic to produce. Porsche started 3D printing spare parts for classic vehicles in 2018, alongside Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and other car manufacturers.

3D printing is also used to add modern custom touches to vehicles. Honda has always allowed customers to add individuality to their car, though custom parts previously required a fully equipped shop. 3D printing allows Honda to produce custom orders quickly, economically and with only the need for a printer, software and materials.

BMW has created an app to allow MINI customers to design 3D printed custom parts for their vehicles. Customers can choose letters, symbols and colors for plastic inserts that can be added to the vehicle’s dashboard or side scuttles.

Faster, Lighter, Stronger Parts & Cars

3D printing allows for the creation of car parts that couldn’t be produced before. Bugatti tested their 3D printed titanium brake caliper in 2018. The piece is stronger and lighter than traditional aluminum, but it couldn’t have been made without 3D printing due to the difficulty of working with titanium. Ford had a similar experience, 3D printing an engine manifold for a racing truck that would have been too complex to create through traditional methods.

Briggs Automotive Company’s Mono R supercar reaches speeds of 170mph, weighs 555kgs, and surpasses 340bhp. In designing the vehicle, the team quickly realized traditional methods of prototyping would take too long and cost too much to produce. Without modern technology, the design might have been scrapped for being too ambitious. However, the team was able to 3D print and test the car’s air intake and carbon fiber reinforced body panels with significant turnaround and cost reduction. Ford experienced similar 3D printing benefits when designing the Mustang Shelby GT500.

3D Printed Cars of the Future

Local Motors revealed the first 3D printed car in 2014. Since then, many other auto manufacturers have revealed their own 3D printed vehicles. Though the technology exists, the public has yet to see such a car available for purchase. This is largely due to speed. For now, 3D printing is too slow to meet the high-volume demand for full-sized vehicles.

But that doesn’t mean the public hasn’t seen 3D printed car parts. Ford released the GT500 with standard 3D printed brake parts. And BMW released their i8 Roadster with 3D printed roof brackets. As the technology advances, more and more car parts may make the switch to 3D printing.

If you’re hoping to house a 3D printed car in your garage someday, it may come sooner than you think. The LSEV, renamed the XEV YOYO, was slated to be the first publicly released 3D printed car in 2019 but failed to meet funding. As advances are made, the day of the fully 3D printed car lot might not be far away.