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3D printing and automotive manufacturing seems like a perfect marriage between the need for new product and concept development and the means to get those parts into user’s hands quickly at lower than expected cost. 3D printing technology has been doing exactly that for major car manufacturers out of Detroit, but it seems like start-ups and disruptors may have a leg up on how, when and why to use additive manufacturing.

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3D printed car ate up the road with a car produced in under 44 hours at the IMTS show in Chicago. I received more inquiries on that car and requests for pictures than most products that had broken new ground in previous years. I saw that same excitement when the car was exhibited at the NPE show in Orlando, with standing room only around the black coupe and countless camera phones taking pictures. Local Motors, the producer of the car has been taking orders for the production model, and their goal is to make the car even faster to build with more customizing features than the initial offerings displayed. Their website highlights the build process and underscores how they changed the way we look at car manufacturing today.


Based on printing using polymers, their idea is that the car can be reprinted if you have a fender bender and they are getting highway crash testing in place. For the latest look at their production series cars, check out this You Tube videos on their offerings. (I personally like the red LM3, but a 3D printed car seems like it would make me the envy of the neighborhood no matter what the color.) Now a 3D printed car may seem over the top on the uses of 3D printing in auto manufacturing, but probably where I see 3D printing being the most impactful is a bit more down to earth and used in production settings right now.

Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) has used 3D printing for years to do prototyping for very simple reason;, it saves money and time. “When milling these prototypes, we could have as many as seven machine setups. This was an inefficient use of our machines and manpower,” says JGR technical director Mark Bringle. “A prototyping system can make these complex parts in one operation, and it doesn’t require CAM programming,” he says. “So we looked into our options.” “…we wanted to model with the strong thermoplastics available for FDMPolycarbonate and Polyphenylsulfone.

We can build prototypes tough enough to bolt onto the car, even the engine block, for evaluation, and they can take the heat. With our FDM machine, we can start building new concepts 15 minutes after the CAD design is complete,” says Bringle. “And prototypes are ready within a day. Previously, prototyping took a minimum of a week, and the delays became longer when the inevitable design changes occurred. Now, with the FDM machine, we make the changes and build another prototype immediately after a design flaw is corrected.”

This is just one example of where automotive uses for 3D printing are making an impact.

Breaking Automotive Design Rules

Though some may feel that the above limits the creativity and blue sky opportunities in customization that 3D printing affords, it may be for the best. After all, as many a design expert knows, customers rarely truly know what they want, nor would the vast majority of them be capable of designing something safe and functional for themselves. “Design work should be left to designers” is a common expert refrain.

“Ultimately, despite the technology, people don't want more options, they just want their choice to be available,” explained Perry.

The maker generation certainly has access and exposure to the technology from a young age, but that doesn’t mean the expectation to make road-safe, quality vehicles is already ingrained. “I see a lot of design rules being broken in the future, but I believe analysis tools will be so powerful that they will automatically build a structure that can withstand the application conditions,” said Clark, noting that the overall shape and "feel" of the design will be what the human input will be. What will be cool, however, is the notion that once the machines get advanced enough, and once the kinks have been worked out of the manufacturing, a car maker might be able to print out both a roadster and a minivan on the same machine, just by tweaking the software. And that’s not even mentioning the custom add-ons that are already a huge market in current day automotive ware. As 3D printing improves, you can do thousands of “custom” parts more cost effectively.

Will car repair become cheaper then? Well, if autonomous vehicles are really all they are cracked up to be, surely we won’t need too much car repair anyway, but the short answer is “probably, yes.” Even today, one can go to a car detailer to replace a headlight and find that the entire housing can be 3D printed on the spot, thereby reducing space that has to be taken up for parts in warehouses, because 3D printing eliminates inventory purchasing and storage-space costs. Aftermarket parts suppliers will be able to manufacture parts on-demand and on an as-needed basis. Traditional car makers are also slowly waking up to the benefits of 3D printing, initially to replace factory tools and fixtures made from expensive, resource-hungry metal

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So, what will the future of car buying look like? Might we simply don our virtual-reality headsets and swipe and drag parts onto a custom frame until we’re happy with the final result? It’s very possible. It also may lead to making cars on-demand rather than churning out hundreds of thousands of them and waiting to make a sale. Indeed, this is exactly what Tesla does by taking customer down payments before starting the manufacturing process. It’s more sustainable, ecofriendly, and cost effective.

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