Made to Order: How 3-D Printing Is Revolutionizing the Auto Industry

can you 3d print a car

In today’s world, 3-D printing is being used to make everything from smartphone cases to prosthetic limbs. As it leaves its mark on other industries, 3-D printing is also changing the way the automotive world is approaching manufacturing challenges. This disruptive technology is paving the way for fresh new automotive ventures.

When General Motors built its 2014 Chevrolet Malibu, the company’s engineers used 3-D printing to build parts including the floor console, the panels on the back of the front seats and the front fascia. Ford also uses 3-D printing for many vehicle parts, including vents, brake rotors and shift knobs.

The technique allows for rapid prototyping instead of relying on the traditional method of making a mold and manufacturing a part or hand-tooling a part. There are many advantages to using 3-D printing instead of traditional manufacturing, not the least of which are lower costs and faster speeds. The method allows for on-demand tooling, and the parts are lighter and the fabrication process is much more environmentally friendly, requiring a fraction of the energy cost that is required in traditional manufacturing.

In the current landscape, cars are built on long assembly lines that consume staggering amounts of energy, which means even cars built to live an eco-friendly existence roll off the assembly line with a huge carbon footprint.

The promise of printing

Jason Bekiaris, marketing manager for Dilawri’s Crown Auto Group in Canada, says the possibilities of 3-D printing are “endless.” In a report for 3DPrint.com, Bekiaris said manufacturers no longer are looking at it just for one-off parts and prototypes.

“Nowadays you can have an entire vehicle printed from scratch in 44 hours,” he says, suggesting we aren’t far from living in a world where we can design a car online, customized to our personal preferences, and have it delivered in two days.

“It may sound outlandish, but the truth is that the future of making cars is bound to change,” Bekiaris said.

Not just for big names

It’s not just major auto companies that are using 3-D printing; in fact, many in the industry point to it as a game-changer, one that could pave the way for new, innovative car manufacturing that will lead to customization that we couldn’t even imagine in the past.

Swedish supercar maker Koenigsegg is among those that have jumped on the 3-D bandwagon for printing prototypes. According to a case study by Canadian technology solutions provider Javelin Technologies, the company is now designing interior fixtures and printing engine parts in house. Since each automobile requires more than 300 carbon-fiber parts, manufacturing and assembling the car by hand has traditionally been a slow and expensive process.

According to founder and CEO Christian von Koenigsegg, switching to a 3-D printer shaved 20%  off the time needed to develop the car’s design while at the same time slashing costs by 40% . While he credits the process with improving the creative flow of his designers and engineers, others say 3-D printing is more about improving the cash flow for consumers.

“You no longer have to be a billionaire” to manufacture cars, said Kevin Czinger, founder and CEO of Divergent Microfactories, in his keynote address at the 2015 O’Reilly Solid conference in San Francisco. “Imagine teams around the world bringing real innovation to the car industry. This is going to accelerate the pace of innovation.”

By way of example, Czinger used the conference as an opportunity to unveil the Blade, the first fully functionally supercar printed from a 3-D printer. The 700 horsepower bi-fuel motor is light on environmental impact, both in the way it is manufactured and in its energy consumption.

Scheduled for release in 2017, the Blade is more than 3,000 pounds lighter than Tesla Motors’ Model S sedan and accelerates faster than a McLaren P1 supercar. But most impressive, says Czinger, is that it boasts 50% of the emissions of a standard car over its life cycle.

“How we make cars is actually a much bigger problem than how we fuel them,” Czinger explained at the time. “Tailpipe emissions are just the tip of the iceberg. A far greater percentage of a car’s emissions come from the materials and energy required to manufacture it.”

He envisions a world where cars are lighter, greener and safer; where they require fewer materials to produce; and where they leave a footprint that’s a fraction of what cars are leaving on the planet today. Czinger believes 3D printing could do for the automotive industry what the PC did for the computer industry. As with that revolution, the consumer benefited through greater choice, flexibility, convenience and lowered pricing.

“If you want to find the next new thing in automobiles,” Czinger said, “you look at manufacturing.”