The advent of 3D printing technology back in the early 1980s turned traditional manufacturing on its head. Chuck Hull, creator of the first 3D printer surely knew his invention would be influential in many manufacturing processes. Recently, the potential of this technology has been intensively explored in the auto industry. Over the past 3 decades, the use of 3D printers in car manufacturing has transformed the way cars are made, from prototype to production.

The combination of advancements in computerized machine controls, innovative materials, and paradigm-shattering design and manufacturing approaches have all contributed to the successful adoption of this exciting technology.

How Does the Automotive Industry Benefit from 3D Printing Technologies?

Also known as additive manufacturing (AM), 3D printing is a cost-effective means of production that cuts down on waste and speeds production time for vital elements of the vehicle production process, including:

  • Prototypes
  • Tools
  • Dies
  • Molds
  • Jigs
  • Fixtures
  • Low-volume and custom parts

Because the 3D printing process builds a part or structure layer by layer, there is far less waste in comparison to so-called “subtractive manufacturing” methods that use a cutting-away of material to create the final product. For this reason, there are obvious environmental benefits to 3D printing, lowering the amount of industrial waste created with each part produced. Other benefits the auto manufacturing industry enjoys from the utilization of 3D printing are speedy delivery of prototypes, facilitating on-the-fly design changes, as well as logistical benefits when collaborating with partners at a distance. Design changes can be made in New York and the part printed in Germany within hours. These timesaving perks make 3D printers a must-have in modern auto manufacturing.

With the development of the thermally stable, durable materials now used in 3D printing, light-weight, high-performance parts are now being printed on-demand. This is especially beneficial in the manufacturing of electric cars, to help offset the considerably weighty battery packs that power them.

When it comes to advanced customization and the production of parts for the restoration of older vehicles, 3D printing is a dream come true. It is very costly to tool up for parts that won’t necessarily advance to mass production, yet advanced customization features help sell the sizzle and provide an upsell, so to create those at a lower cost is beneficial.

Types of 3D Printing Used in Car Manufacturing

Although based on the same concept of additive manufacturing, there are actually seven methods of 3D printing currently used in manufacturing. These include:

  1. Stereolithography (SLA)
  2. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
  3. Fused deposition modeling (FDM)
  4. Digital Light Processing (DLP)
  5. Selective laser melting (SLM)
  6. Digital Beam Melting (EBM)
  7. Laminated object manufacturing (LOM)

Also called SLA 3D printing, stereolithography is the oldest method of 3D printing and is still used today. Stereolithography uses a process of solidifying photosensitive liquid resin with a high-powered laser, resulting in the solid 3D product.

Selective laser sintering (SLS) is another popular 3D printing method, where high-powered lasers are used to fuse small particles of a substrate such as nylon, glass, ceramic or even some metals.

3D printing in the auto industry heavily relies on these two manufacturing methods. Small car parts such as vent covers and other elements that don’t require extreme stability and strength may be manufactured using stereolithography, while parts requiring advanced functionality as nylon will allow would use the method of selective laser sintering.

While the other 3D printing technologies are used and new methods are being developed, these tried and true technologies have proven to be reliable enough for the demanding auto industry applications currently being utilized.

Will 3D Printing Be the Driving Force in Future Automotive Manufacturing?

The current obstacles of 3D printing for mass production of major components of car manufacturing like slow production times, inadequate base materials, and reliance on human design input are being worked on. Early adopters of 3D printing like the Fiat Chrysler Group, Volkswagen Group, and the Ford Motor Company are all optimistic about where additive manufacturing will go from here.

Exciting new 3D printers like HP’s Metal Jet with the ability to manufacture complex metal parts never before possible are opening new doors to mass production for automotive applications.

As artificial intelligence (AI) progresses, we may soon see these obstacles removed from the 3D printing equation. Innovative new designs will be developed to eliminate antiquated mechanical designs and create new designs that work better within the constraints of 3D printing abilities for a superior end product. Of course, as 3D technology is more widely adopted, costs will likely come down. More highly-trained individuals will enter the field, making talent easier to acquire. With a wider user base, innovations will skyrocket.