How Does the Automotive Industry Benefit From 3D Metal Printing?

3D printing is no longer the sole purview of hobbyists and DIYers. It’s quickly evolving and changing nearly every industry on the planet. The automotive industry is no stranger to automation, but 3D printing may change the way manufacturers construct commercial and personal vehicles, making them more affordable and available than ever before. How will 3D metal printing benefit the automotive industry now and in the future?

Printing and Prototyping:

Each new automobile starts off as a prototype before it heads into production — first in miniature, and then as a full-scale model. Instead of fabricating each piece individually, 3D metal printing allows engineers to create a fully functional prototype directly from their digital design without the additional fabrication steps that normally fall in the middle.

3D metal printing isn’t just good for creating whole car prototypes. It can also be used to create rapid prototypes of tools and replacement parts that would otherwise take days or weeks to fabricate. If, for example, a recall is necessary due to a faulty part, 3D metal printing could rapidly prototype and print a replacement before it goes to the primary manufacturer, saving time and money and reducing the impact that the recall will have on the company and its reputation.

Replacing Rare Spare Parts:

Classic car collectors often find it challenging to get the parts they need to keep their automotive antique running on the best of days. Some companies, like Porsche, have turned to 3D printing to generate spare parts for rare and limited-run vehicles — or any vehicle that owners or shops might have trouble getting their hands on.

Traditionally, if the warehouse runs out of any of the 52,000 different parts that make up the Porsche classic catalog, specific tooling is required to make more of them. Not so with 3D printing. This process is more cost-effective than reworking a factory to make a specific part, and it could reduce the amount of warehouse space needed because each part could be made to order in a couple of hours or days.

Porsche tested this initiative by 3D printing a fully functional clutch release lever for the Porsche 959. The lever had to pass the same tests as an originally tooled part, including a three-ton pressure test. The manufacturer is planning to add 20 more parts to their digital library as part of the pilot program before expanding it as necessary.

Bespoke Car Designs:

Customization is something that’s limited to the average car owner. Drivers can choose things like interior and exterior colors and add-ons, but the make, model and look of the vehicle are the same as every other one of that particular model on the road. For buyers with deep pockets, Rolls-Royce is working on creating fully bespoke vehicles with the use of 3D printing.

The trick with this type of 3D metal printing isn’t in the technology — it’s in the fact that between 30 and 40% of new Rolls-Royce drivers choose a stock model from the dealership floor rather than ordering a custom model for themselves. Giving them the option to create a bespoke vehicle where they can design everything from the frame and body to the interior entertainment console may augment the luxury car industry in ways manufacturers didn’t expect.

Lighter Cars and Higher Fuel Efficiencies:

Automotive manufacturers have been working toward making lightweight cars that use fuel more efficiently for decades, and they’ve come a long way from the old cars and trucks that would get fewer than five miles to the gallon. 3D metal printing may be the next step in the right direction, as manufacturers can use these printers to create latticed parts made from aluminum alloys. These components are as strong and as safe as their solid aluminum counterparts — while reducing weight by up to 80%.

The ultimate goal of this 3D printing application is to reduce the weight of many automotive components between 40 and 80%. Doing so doesn’t just reduce weight — it also reduces waste and the overall production cost of the vehicle, making purchasing a new car or truck much more accessible for the average driver. Lighter vehicles also use less fuel, increasing fuel economy and reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and monoxide released by the exhaust system.

Fully 3D Printed Vehicles: 

3D printed vehicles may be the wave of the future, but the technology isn’t quite there yet. However, that hasn’t stopped automotive manufacturers from making an attempt. One Hong-Kong-based automotive company, XEV, has the LSEV, a 3D printed electric vehicle. It can be printed quickly — in about three days — but has only a 90-mile range and a top speed of 43 miles per hour. The interior and exterior are 3D printed, but things like seats, brakes and lights still have to be installed manually.

Right now, 3D printing technology is slow. It will need to improve if we hope to use 3D metal printing to create fully functional passenger or commercial vehicles. A modern assembly line can put together an entire car in under 90 minutes. A 3D printer can take days, weeks or even months to create something similar.

The Future of Metal 3D Printing in Automotive Construction: 

3D printing was once thought of as a tool for hobbyists to design and build toys, but it’s making its way into nearly every industry in the world. NASA is 3D printing tools on the International Space Station so that astronauts can complete their jobs, and medical companies are starting to 3D print everything from replacement hips to prosthetic arms.

We won’t see fully 3D printed vehicles any time soon — the technology is currently too slow, and even the bespoke Rolls-Royce models can take between four and seven months to complete a single vehicle. That said, as the technology continues to evolve, it will become a distinct possibility as we move into the future.

Megan Nichols is a science and technology blogger. She contributes regularly to American Machinist, Fabbaloo, and Industry Today. Megan also publishes easy to understand manufacturing articles on her personal blog, Schooled By Science.