3D printing technology is one of the most revolutionary technologies of all times, but just because it is just becoming mainstream now doesn’t mean it is a new technology. Sure, it can be considered new now due to its growing popularity and the fact that it started becoming available to the public, but earlier versions of 3D printing have been around for quite a while. One of the industries that made use of 3D printing and its predecessor technologies is the automotive industry, where manufacturers were always on the look for new technologies that would allow them to improve and speed up their manufacturing process. The real boom of 3D printing in the automotive industry is yet to happen, though. Here is how 3D printing is quickly racing to the point in the auto industry.
Designing a new car is a tremendously complicated task. It usually involves hundreds (if not thousands) of people, countless hours of hard work, numerous trial-and-error stages and a large number of prototypes. This applies to basically every component of the car before the car itself is born. These early stages are often referred to as prototyping stages – they are the stages where ideas and designs are roughly shaped, tested, polished, tested some more, and so on and so forth, before reaching their final form. They key element of prototyping is having a physical representation of the element that’s being designed, and this part used to be complicated as it was time consuming, costly and laborious. We say it “used” to be complicated because, nowadays, thanks to 3D printers, prototyping just became a whole lot easier. Using specially-adapted 3D printers, car manufacturers can create a prototype for a component significantly faster than they were able to in the past, greatly reducing development times.
Taking things up a notch, manufacturers are also using 3D printing for creating actual parts for the end products, not just the prototypes. For example, in March 2017 Ford announced they were working on a partnership with 3D printing company Stratasys for production of prototype components as well as production-ready components, which is a clear indicator that 3D printing will be one of the key elements of automotive production moving forward. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise, considering the fact that modern cars contain a whole lot more plastic and derivate components instead of metal and derivate components as they used to contain a few years back. Metal was replaced with plastic and similar alternatives wherever possible because it was lighter, cheaper and easier to manufacture, the last part becoming significantly truer with the introduction of 3D printing, so it will be no surprise if moving forward we will see even more plastic and other 3D-printable components in cars.
Aside from general production, 3D printers are even more valuable in the supercar industry, where the production volume is considerably lower, but the requirements are higher. Setting up an assembly line for each component of the car might not be worth it from a financial standpoint, so 3D printers save the day once more by allowing flexibility in creating the necessary components. The 3D printers used for such tasks are not your average off-the-shelf 3D printers, but much more expensive and sophisticated versions, but due to the fact that they can be used for the next project, and the one after that and so on, makes them a great investment.
One of the key advantages of 3D printing, as highlighted before, it its versatility and customizability – it takes little effort to bring a piece from a concept stage to a design stage. One of the core features of the automotive industry was standardization, which implied manufacturing of as many identical components as possible and using them wherever possible, as each change of specs implied changes in the production line, which were costly and time-consuming. 3D printing changes that, offering improved flexibility, so manufacturers will be able to offer a whole lot more customization options that the clients can choose from when configuring their new car. Numerous interior elements will be customizable moving forward, allowing the client to configure his new car to match his needs and style, without being restricted to manufacturer-recommended options only.
Most 3D printers have two main systems: the printing head, which does the actual printing, and the printing bed, which is basically a baseplate that is moved around very precisely so the output of the printing head is laid out in the proper shape to create the desired object.
A great advantage of this design is that it is flexible – while the printer head itself can only do printing, the printing bed can be used in other tasks as well, thanks to its high precision movement capabilities, laser engraving or CNC carving being just two of the possible uses. Simply swap the printer head to a laser head and you have a whole new machine you can work with for other tasks.