“The printer is so fast, and so effective"
In various industries, 3D printing has emerged as a disruptive technology and one of the main industries it is transforming is the car industry.
Although 3D printing has been a vital part of the development process for cars for years, it has recently gained a foothold throughout manufacturing.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing has added enormous value to the industry whether it be manufacturing parts or reducing time spent.
As 3D printing technology continues to advance, it is expected to play an increasingly important role in the car industry, revolutionising the way cars are designed, manufactured, and customised.
With that said, we look at the ways 3D printing is changing the car industry.
Many 3D printing technologies are used to create prototypes with short turnaround times. This is the case at Ford’s Rapid Technology Centre in Merkenich, Germany.
Instead of sending out a job to a shop with a several-week lead time, engineers and designers are able to get their designs in a matter of hours.
At the Rapid Technology Centre, designers are able to produce same-day prototypes.
According to Bruno Alves, additive manufacturing expert at Ford, physical prototypes can offer advantages over digital models.
For example, Formlabs 3D printers were used to prototype the lettering on the back of the Ford Puma.
This allowed designers to see how the lines and shadows would appear in various lighting conditions.
Alves says: “The printer is so fast, and so effective for this kind of lettering, that we could supply the designers the option to iterate.
“It’s a thing that you can see it in CATIA or other software, you can simulate lighting, but it’s different to feel, to touch, and to see all the reflections when you put the lettering on the car.”
Turning Concept Cars into Reality
When it comes to 3D printing in the motoring industry, more concept cars are turning into reality.
One company doing such things is the UK-based Vital Auto.
When the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) do not have time for experimentation themselves, they come to Vital to turn ideas, initial sketches, drawings or technical specifications into a fully realised physical form.
Anthony Barnicott, Design Engineer in charge of additive manufacturing, says:
“We’ve used 3D printing from day one. We wanted to introduce it to our manufacturing processes, not only to reduce costs but to give the customer more diversity with their designs and their ideas.”
Barnicott runs a whole 3D printing department, including 14 large-format fused deposition modelling (FDM) printers, three Formlabs Form 3L large-format stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers and five Fuse 1 selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printers.
“In terms of capacity, all those printers have run 100%, 24/7, pretty much since day one.”
“We use these printers for all areas of our concepts and designs. Typically, we use the Fuse 1s for our production-based parts and we use our Form 3Ls for our concept-based parts.”
Not only does 3D printing help create better products faster but it also attracts new business.
Many customers turn to Vital Auto because they want to have access to the latest technologies.
Barnicott added: “The progression in technology and 3D printing over the last 10 years is phenomenal.
“When I first started, producing low-volume, niche vehicles, some of the products that we produce today would simply have been inaccessible.
“And not only am I able to produce these parts today, but I’m also able to produce them very cost-effectively, very quickly.”
Lightweight Car Parts
IGESTEK is an automotive supplier in Spain that develops lightweight solutions using plastics and composite materials.
The company uses 3D printing throughout the product development process.
They also use 3D printing to manufacture rapid tooling, such as inserts for plastic injection moulds or thermoforming tools for composites.
IGESTEK is focused on creating lightweight car parts.
For one suspension mount, the team developed a multi-material architecture that combines metal 3D printing based on generative geometries and lighter composite materials to offer the best performance, in a 40% lighter package than current solutions on the market.
Dorman Products designs and manages over 100,000 parts for hundreds of different vehicles.
In addition to the logistical challenge of operating as an aftermarket supplier, Dorman’s product design and manufacturing teams need to be agile.
Additive Manufacturing Lead Chris Allebach says:
“The OEMs have teams of people designing a single part, sometimes starting two years prior to a new car coming out.
“We need to find ways to ensure our replacements are reliable while also being fast to market.”
The lack of custom test fixturing was a challenge before 3D printers were integrated into their workflow.
Allebach says: “Now, with the 3D printers, we develop the test fixtures and gauges along with prototyping the product, so when we decide on a final design, we can have the fixture to test it as well. We’re trying to be as proactive as possible.”
The number of 3D printers has steadily increased since Dorman acquired their first device in 2009.
3D Printed Moulds
In the automotive industry, companies are using 3D-printed dies to mould leather, which can be difficult to shape.
Makra Pro does this and in partnership with some of its clients, the company has tested a method for shaping and embossing real leather.
Using moulds printed on a Form 3 printer, Makra Pro’s technique uses expanding foam to evenly distribute pressure across a panel of stretched leather.
As the foam hardens, the leather is pressed into the die and takes on its shape.
The finished leather parts can then be stretched over the door panel in a car or attached to the seat cover in a vehicle.
Improved Engine Performance
Improving engine performance is another way 3D printing is changing the car industry.
Following the release of the Toyota Yaris GR, the engineers at Forge Motorsport noticed a few ways to improve the inlet duct design.
They reverse-engineered the OEM part using 3D scanning. Using SOLIDWORKS, they were able to simulate airflow.
Once they had a workable 3D model, they prototyped it in fast-printing Draft Resin, which they used to confirm that the new location for the airbox opening would work as intended and that the overall increased size of the part wouldn’t interfere with other components or cables.
With basic fit confirmed, they reprinted the part in Tough 1500 Resin, a strong and impact-resistant material, painted it black to resemble the final part, and gave it to a customer to test.
Over a five-month period, the 3D-printed part produced a lower intake air temperature and there were reduced fluctuations.
The company moved forward by using carbon fibre to manufacture the final production part.
End-Use Aftermarket Parts
BTI Gauges is known for 3D printing such devices and it came when founder Brandon Talkmitt was looking for a customisable approach to telemetry display for his high-performance car.
He unsuccessfully searched for a gauge that contained multiple performance metrics, so multiple screens did not litter his windshield.
He then began by prototyping the external casings of the gauges on a 3D printer and testing them out himself, subjecting the casings to high-heat environments inside cars and ovens, and modifying the design to complement multiple car models.
This led to interest among drivers of high-performance vehicles.
Talkmitt began looking at other 3D printing options and eventually came across the Fuse 1.
He said: “When I got the sample I thought, ‘Man, if my parts can look like this’.
“So I ran some tests and figured out what kind of heat it could tolerate. Did the finishing and painting process on it, and everything worked.”
BTI Gauges faced component shortages. The company rectified this by bringing 3D printing in-house.
“I would have been stuck with all that plastic, but with the Fuse 1, I could make the change on the fly.”
“It was a 30-minute thing for me to change the files. Without it, I would definitely be stuck right now.”
3D printing is revolutionising the car industry by offering a range of benefits that were previously impossible.
This technology is enabling faster and more cost-effective product development through rapid prototyping, allowing manufacturers to test and refine designs more efficiently.
By facilitating the creation of customised parts and accessories, 3D printing is also enabling car manufacturers to offer a higher level of personalisation to their customers.
As 3D printing technology continues to evolve, its impact on the car industry is likely to become even more significant, transforming the way cars are designed, manufactured and customised in the future.