3D printing has played an important role in the automotive industry for many years now, but for the most part its use has been resigned to prototyping. It is a relatively inexpensive way to print 3D models that could improve the manufacturing and fitting process.


But in the last couple years, 3D printing has gotten cheaper, better, and more readily available. It has changed from something that played a small but integral role, to something that could be the future of the industry. It’s now possible for manufacturers to print high-quality parts that can be fitted into commercial vehicles, and this could have a massive impact on the future of this industry.


The question is, can 3D printing really change the automotive industry or is this another passing fad that will fade away long before it becomes commonplace?


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1. The Benefits of 3D Printed Car Parts


It’s not a question of whether or not 3D printing will play a role in the automotive industry. As mentioned above, it already does and there are already 100% 3D printed cars being made. Whether this will be commercially viable is a different matter and we’ll get to that shortly, but first, let’s focus on how this would be beneficial.


Custom Cars


There are a few choices you can make when you buy a car fresh off the production line. You can change the style of the interior, opt for additional technology, and choose from an array of exterior colors. However, there are limits with regards to the actual car parts as these vehicles are produced to a specific spec and roll-off the line in huge numbers.


When 3D printed car parts become a reality, ordering a car from the factory will be like buying a wedding cake from your local baker—everything, from the way it looks to the performance, can be tweaked.


Of course, there will still be limits, but you will have much more freedom because the manufacturer will have more choice.


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Cars Will be Lighter


3D printed car parts can be created to very exacting specifications using an array of materials. They can be made lighter—the same treatment given to high-performance sports cars, but made available for run-of-the-mill road vehicles. Lighter cars are faster, but they also require less power.


Of course, it’s safe to assume that electricity and/or biofuel will replace gasoline by the time 3D printed car parts become a reality, but efficiency is still incredibly important and it’s something that all manufacturers are moving towards.


Cars and Car Parts Will be Cheaper


Imagine a world where every car part can be printed by a single 3D printer in a single warehouse; where every collector and enthusiast can download blueprints, spend a few bucks on basic materials, and then print everything they need. Such a world may only be a generation away, and when it happens it will make car parts much cheaper.


This could also impact on the price of cars, although this will still be a specialist industry, one that can’t be replicated at home or by a small business, so it could be a while before cars plummet in price as a result of 3D printing technology.


No Material Loss


Preventing fuel waste isn’t the only way that 3D printed parts can make cars more efficient, it can also reduce material loss during the manufacturing process. A lot of materials are wasted and a great deal of energy is used during the production process—machines need to run around the clock, vast amounts of raw materials are condensed into a small selection of parts.


With 3D printing, manufacturers only use the materials that actually make it into the car. This means that 3D car parts are more sustainable and can greatly reduce the environmental damage and cost of material waste.


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No More Issues Finding Classic Car Parts


As any fan of classic cars will tell you, it can be a struggle to find a suitable car part. They go out of production, become rare, and you’re left with no choice but to spend weeks tracking them down and then drop a small fortune buying from a collector.


3D car parts could make this problem a thing of the past. It won’t matter if your part is still in production, all that matters is that you, or a specialist supplier, has the blueprints, after which it can be printed quickly and cheaply.


Years from now collectors could have 3D printers in their garage and will be able to print brand-new parts as soon as their old parts break. For those who can’t justify owning a printer themselves, they’ll be able to order their parts online and have them printed and shipped in a few days.


Of course, printing parts for current classic vehicles like the iconic DeLorean will be a little trickier than doing the same for future classic cars, but it’s still very much a possibility.


2. The Downsides


The main issue with 3D printing is that it’s expensive and not quite ready to build entire production cars. There have been attempts and they haven’t been a complete disaster, but for the most part they have been glorified prototypes, designed to test the capabilities and the limits of this technology while also delivering some priceless PR.


A lot of money is being invested in 3D printing and it’s gradually being introduced into the mainstream process, but it could be a long time before that happens.


Another major downside is that it will greatly reduce the number of skilled workers required, which could impact thousands of jobs and hundreds of communities. This is true for all major advances though and is an inevitability of technological progression.


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3. 3D Printed Parts and Cars


Between 2015 and 2019, manufacturers made giant leaps forward with regards to 3D printed cars and car parts. Many major announcements were made and it seemed like a revolution was in motion. That may or may not come to fruition any time soon, but it’s promising to note that manufacturers are getting onboard with this technology.


Here are some of the biggest moves made during this time:


Bugatti Divo


Bugatti built some of the slickest, most stylish, and most sought-after cars in the world, so when they used some 3D printed parts for their Divo car, the world took notice. Bugatti weren’t looking for PR, nor were they testing the waters. They simply wanted a way to produce parts to their exacting specifications, and 3D printing was that way.


They printed lightweight parts, including rear-light that made the car significantly lighter overall while maintaining the style and performance.


The Light Cocoon


The Light Cocoon is a 3D printed car that weighs just 19 grams per square meter. It was built as a concept car by the German-based EDAG Engineering, who showcased it at the 2016 Geneva Motor Show. They said that the design was inspired by leaves and was made using a lightweight waterproof fabric known as Texapore Softshell.


Not only is this material tough and weather resistant, but it’s said to be 4-times lighter than copy paper, which is why this machine was so lightweight.


X Electrical Smart 3D Car


In 2018, X-Electrical, an Italian manufacturer, partnered with Chinese company Polymaker to launch a commercial Smart-sized 3D printed car. This car is built from the ground-up and is entirely 3D printed. The goal, according to a spokesperson for Polymaker, is to inspire more companies to follow in their footsteps and to lay the groundwork for a future of 3D printed cars.


They claimed that they would be able to produce 500 units per year and would be open for sales in late 2019, with the car priced at an estimated $10,000. Very little seems to have come of this vehicle just yet, but both of these companies are working hard to push 3D automotive printing.


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4. Are 3D Printed Parts the Future?


It’s early days, but a lot of progression has been made in this sector. The automotive parts industry is huge. The US exports close to $90 billion worth of car parts and over $105 billion is spent on research and development worldwide. This is a hugely profitable industry and that profit is the driving force behind change.


However, this technology is still expensive and much slower than traditional methods. Right now, it’s a great way to hasten the prototyping process and it is being used to print some car parts for high-performance, limited-run cars. But it could be a decade or two before it becomes cheap and effective enough to take over completely.


By the time this happens, 3D printers could be commonplace in homes and garages, which means that whenever you need a new part, be it a wheel or a spark plug, you’ll just need to buy some basic materials, download a blueprint, and print as needed.


In the meantime, you’ll have to stick with traditional car parts, such as the many classic car parts you can find right here on this website! 3D car parts printing is exciting and promising, there’s no denying that, but it’s not quite there yet.


Image Source: @pixabay

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