3D Printing in the Automotive Industry

Published on March 2, 2017

3D Printing in the Automotive Industry

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  • The Automotive industry uses 3D printing in a number of applications.
  • Prototypes, spare parts, racing parts and car parts are being manufactured.

The automotive industry has been one of the key industries to adopt 3D printing. In automotive 3D printing is being used in prototypes, concept cars, unique cars, motorsports and now is beginning to be used in manufacturing. Automotive companies were one of the first customers for 3D printing companies and have adopted a number of technologies including FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling, also called FFF and material extrusion), Powder Bed Fusion (also called SLM, DMLS, LS, ALM), Stereolithography (SLA, vat polymerization) and binder jetting.

Prototypes

Automotive companies first used 3D printing in prototyping. Visual prototypes were made of concept cars or parts. Later on form and fit testing with 3D printed prototypes is done. 3D printing provided car manufacturers with a relatively quick method by which to make unique parts cost effectively. Concept car interiors are an example of one off affairs that would be cost prohibitive to make with another technology. For these types of parts Stereolithography is usually used. The parts are 3D printed, hand finished and then coated or painted. Objet Polyjet, a technology that uses an inkjet head to print a photopolymer, is also used for visual prototypes and to test individual car parts. Selective Laser Sintering (LS, powder bed fusion) is also used to make form and fit parts such as interiors for testing and evaluation.  

A concept car dashboard being printed on a Materialise Mammoth stereolithography machine.

Unique Cars

In the world of bespoke automobiles the sky’s the limit. A customer approaches a car customization company, an aftermarket company, a designer or a car company with a set of wishes and demands which are specific to that individual. Often designs must be outlandish or very unique. In addition to handmade metal body panels and hand lay-up carbon fiber parts 3D printing is often used in this context. The company will of course use standard parts when they can and turns to CNC usually for metal custom parts. But, interior fixtures, dashboards, housings, clamps and all manner of car parts have been created for these unique cars. Initially this was only done for bespoke cars but lately car company customization services and aftermarket companies have been deploying 3D printing in this way. Stereolithography or FDM parts can be chromed for use as unique enclosures or the parts may be coated or painted.   

With the advent of lower cost desktop 3D printers aftermarket companies have been increasingly turning to these systems to try to make unique parts for people who want custom spoilers or add ons inside the car itself.

Classic Car Parts


A related development is the increasing experimentation going on with classic car parts. Some parts are rare or impossible to obtain. In a few cases individuals have 3D printed parts and chromed them to replace parts that they can not obtain. People have also used 3D printing to make casts for metal parts. 3D printing services and car restoration companies are increasingly using 3D printing in this way. At one point 3D printing may also be a technology deployed to make OEM spare parts. So far however one of a kind parts or difficult to obtain parts are those that are being printed. Door handles, signage, interior parts, engine bay parts and engine parts for classic cars are now currently being made.

An example of a unique car part recreated with 3D printing, a Rolls-Royce privacy curtain motor housing.

 

Motorsports

Formula 1 and other car racing series have been using 3D printing for a number of years. Part lightness is very important in car racing and with 3D printing metal parts can be replaced by plastics or parts can be redesigned for 3D printing to save weight. Metal 3D printing technologies and plastics are widely used in many applications in motorsports. Engine parts, panels, mirrors, wings, plank parts and many other components are being used. Generally in motorsports people are looking at high strength materials and look at using filled grades for example. Fire retardancy is also a consideration as well. Metal and plastics 3D printing technologies are used for these applications. Initially wind tunnel prototypes were one of the first uses. As 3D printing matured however more applications were found to make high strength weight saving parts on the cars themselves.

3D printed alternator cooling covers for NASCAR.

Just in Time Manufacturing

3D printing has also been used intermittently to solve manufacturing challenges. If a molded production part was late but the car had to ship 3D printed parts have been used to fill the gap. The short lead times for 3D printed parts mean that they can be made and delivered quickly. Even though the number of 3D printing materials has been expanding there are still far fewer materials out there if one compares 3D printing to CNC for example. Certification of materials and 3D printing processes also can make things difficult. Car companies are big users of the technology but to industrialize 3D printing for end use car parts is still a challenge.

Manufacturing

We can say that many major car companies are exploring 3D printing and are significant users of the technology. They seem on the cusp of implementing 3D printing in series automobiles. Movements in higher customized cars and more models are helping this development. Fuel emissions standards also mean that weight saving parts are of interest to automobile companies. Car start ups seem the furthest along in making 3D printed cars a reality for now.

Local Motors has made the Strati and the LM3D whose bodies is entirely 3D printed, using the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s BAAM technology. Taking 44 hours to build these composite 3D printed cars are moving towards production. Whereas the Strati was meant to be “the world’s first 3D printed car” the LM3D is aiming to become the world’s first road legal production car.
3D printing can add value to the automotive industry and more companies are moving the technology forward. It remains to be seen just how much of an impact 3D printing will have on the automotive industry, if you’re interested in learning more do contact us.