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Introduction to 3D Printing in the Automotive Industry

As 3D printers get cheaper, faster, and more accurate to operate, more industries find a use for them. One of the big industries that have been in love with 3D printers over the past decade is the automotive industry. Some of the biggest names in the world of auto have been using this technology to get an upper hand on their competitors.

In this piece, we’ll dive into the automotive industry. We’ll see how 3D printers are used, what their role is, who’s using them, and why the technology is so useful for them.

The Role of 3D Printing in the Automotive Industry

The role of 3D printing in the automotive industry is bigger than you might think. In the past decade, more and more car companies are throwing their hats into the 3D printing ring.

The role of 3D printing isn’t obvious to the everyday consumer since we don’t see 3D printed cars on the road. The real role comes when you pull back the curtain and look at the production and testing processes.

As you’ll see in the following sections, 3D printing is the right manufacturing process for every car company.

Where you Might Find 3D Printed Auto Parts

There aren’t a ton of 3D printed parts that make it into a final production run. That’s not to say 3D printed parts are bad, it’s just hard to print them at the scale that auto manufacturers are looking for.

In the Test Lab

Most of the printed parts are showing up during the prototyping and testing phases. For example, Alfa Romeo’s F1 team 3D prints scaled-down models of their final production car. They take the miniature parts to a wind tunnel to see how aerodynamic the car would be.

This option is a lot cheaper, faster, and easier than manufacturing a full-scale model, then testing it.

The same can be said for stress testing, assembly testing, and dynamic situations for car parts.

Tooling, Jigs, and Fixtures

The folks at Ford use 3D printers to make tools, jigs, and fixtures for their vehicles. They’re used as peripheral steps in the ultimate production process.

Making a car could require a lot of unique, one-off tools. Rather than paying an over-priced third party, these teams are deciding to print their own tools in-house.

Replacing Obsolete Pieces for Classic Cars

If you own something like a ’74 Chevelle, you know that it’s nearly impossible to replace a broken part. True collectors will only put OEM replacements in their cars, but most of them run into trouble.

The Chevelle, for example, hasn’t seen a production line since 1977. Owners have to cross their fingers and hope to find a replacement for their broken window crank handle.

Alternatively, the part could be 3D printed using OEM dimensions. The result? A quasi-OEM part that no one would be able to tell is a replicated piece. All the while, it’s much cheaper than a true OEM part.

Which Car Companies are Using 3D Printers?

You can tell how viable a technology is by which companies actually use it. This is the surprising thing: the most trustworthy and quality-focused automotive manufacturers are using 3D printing. Some of the major companies using 3D printers are:

  • BMW
  • Audi
  • Porsche
  • Ford
  • Volvo
  • Bugatti
  • GM
  • Rolls Royce
  • Daihatsu
  • VW
  • Alfa Romeo’s F1 team

Advantages of 3D Printing for the Auto Industry

If these big names in the auto industry are using 3D printing, there has to be a good reason. Well, there are a number of reasons why 3D printers are so useful in this industry. Let’s talk about some of the major ones.

The Price

First and foremost, manufacturing low-run or one-off parts is incredibly expensive if you use traditional machining.

There’s a cost associated with buying raw material, setting up machines, learning about the part, and finally making it. With traditional machine shops, the “per unit” cost goes down as you make more and more. One-off parts have the highest possible “per unit” cost.

For most production cars, they’ll use bulk manufacturing to knock out hundreds of thousands of parts. Before the final production run, during the initial stages, these manufacturers might just need 10 or 20 parts to play with.

Rather than spending an outrageous amount on a machine shop, these companies can use a 3D printing shop. They’ll enjoy a much lower price on most of the items they’re considering.

A part that costs $5,000 to machine might only cost $500 to 3D print.

Speed of Manufacturing

Not only are 3D printed parts cheaper, but they’re faster to make. Car parts can be really complicated which means machining them can take a lot of time, energy, and a talented machinist.

Instead of waiting for the long lead-times of traditional machining, an automotive company can turn to a 3D printing shop. For especially complicated parts, they might save weeks or months in lead-time.

Ease of Iterative Design

During the prototyping stage, there’s a lot of iteration that goes on. The designers might go through a dozen prototypes, each with small tweaks from the previous version. These tweaks happen after holding the prototype in their hand and physically testing it.

Each of these iterations results in more money and time spent waiting for a machinist to finish the part. With a 3D printer, a designer can make changes and have the new part start printing within the same day.

It’s easy to make changes on a 3D CAD model and ship it over to a 3D printing shop.

Validating a Proof of Concept

Sometimes, an auto designer has an idea and isn’t quite sure how it will work out. It’d be hard for them to ask their boss for thousands of dollars to test an idea that might not even work.

It’s a lot easier for them to ask for tens or hundreds of dollars to 3D print the same piece.

This is one way that someone like BMW can stay ahead of their competitors with their M Performance line. If someone has an idea for a new, lightweight, high-performance door panel, they can test it and prove it out before going to full-scale production.

Lightweighting

Designing a part for a 3D printer is very different than designing it for a CNC mill. With a 3D printer, you have more design freedom.

One avenue of freedom is the ability to lightweight a piece. Bugatti wanted to make a lighter brake caliper, so they 3D printed one it was featured in headlines across the world.

Is it Possible to 3D Print a Whole Car?

So far, we’ve only talked about 3D printed components or parts of a car. Is it possible to print a whole car? Not only is it possible, but it’s already been done a number of times.

3D printers can use multiple different materials and can print almost anything that can be otherwise manufactured. Through a combination of carbon fiber, plastics, and metals, it’s easy to visualize how someone might 3D print a whole car.

The only place where 3D printing falls short is in the electrical components, tires, engine, and suspension. For now, it’s probably easier just to buy and install those components into an otherwise fully 3D printed car.

Local Motors Strati

A company Local Motors 3D printed their Strati. The only non-3D printed parts are the motor, battery, suspension, and lights. The whole thing can be printed in less than 24 hours, with the goal being a sub-10-hour print time.

3D Printed Lambo

What about something more stylish? Well, a father-son duo put together a 3D printed Lamborghini Aventador. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.

3D Printed Concept Car

Another great example is the 3D printed Light Cocoon by EDAG. This project started in 2015 and they successfully put together a few 3D printed concept cars that look great.

The selling point is how lightweight the car is. A thin layer covers the lattice-like skeleton of the car which is only possible with 3D printing technology.

What About Consumers Who Want to 3D Print Their Own Car Parts?

The only downfall of 3D printing in the auto industry is when it comes to the consumers. There’s no low-cost way for you to get something 3D printed for your personal vehicle. Custom one-off parts have a big price tag if the design work isn’t done yet.

Car parts need to be specially designed, which takes a good deal of money and time upfront. Unless you already have the design, you might be caught off-guard with the quote from a professional 3D printing shop.

You might want to stick with aftermarket mods if you’re looking to customize your ride.

Materials Used in Automotive 3D Printing

To better understand automotive 3D printing, let’s talk about some materials you can use.

Plastics

Of course, plastics is the material people think of when they imagine 3D printing. In our shop, we can make massive pieces up to 60″ x 29″ x 22″.

They aren’t as strong as metals, but they’re less expensive.

Stainless Steel

High strength, low flexibility, and corrosion resistance. These are reasons why so many people in the auto industry love stainless steel.

Did you know that stainless can be 3D printed? From a materials perspective, the final product is identical to raw stainless steel.

We can use this material to make molds for casting products.

Maraging Steel

Maraging steel is typically used for injection molding tools. These help auto manufacturers produce plastic parts in bulk. It’s typically less expensive and quicker to make the mold via 3D printing instead of traditional machining.

Bluestone

If you want a wind tunnel model, you can count on Bluestone. It’s a construction material that is a stable engineered nano composite. It’s perfect for prototyping for aerodynamics or drag on a scale model of your automobile or bike.

Learn More About Automotive 3D Printing

We’re really excited about how many car companies are using 3D printers. We’ve been saying it for a while, but 3D printing is a shoo-in for the automotive industry. Companies can prototype, test ideas, and make small-batch runs cheaper, faster, and more accurately than with a traditional machine shop.

If you want to learn more about automotive 3D printing or you need something 3D printed for your automotive company, reach out to our pros at 3D Printed Parts. We have the experience and knowledge to help with your 3D printed project.