My Automaker is a 3D Printer

Olli 3D-printed bus

How the rapid expansion of 3D printing capabilities is changing the way cars are designed and manufactured.

Before offering tinted windows and fancy rims, automakers gave buyers few ways to customize a new car. But now that’s changing.

According to auto industry experts and researchers, computer simulation and 3D printing technologies could significantly change the way people can personalize their cars — from engine parts to tricked-out hubcaps.

“The sheer fact you can build something on a computer, click ‘print’ and see it physically built in front of your eyes is incredible,” said Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based manufacturer that, in 2014, became the first company to 3D-print an entire vehicle.

Edgar Sarmiento
Local Motors Olli is the world’s first 3D Printed autonomous bus, pictured here with its creator Edgar Sarmiento. Photo by Jason Dixson Photography.

If it can be dreamed up or designed in a CAD file, said Rogers, it can be 3D printed – whether it’s a bumper, a custom spoiler or a piston that powers the engine.

3D printing is one of three key trends impacting manufacturing today, according to Irene Petrick, director of business strategy for the Energy Solutions Group at Intel.

“Digitization, automation and 3D printing are transforming manufacturing in a myriad of ways,” said Petrick.

“Each is bringing new quality controls, development process management and efficient methods for making products,” she said. “These trends show that manufacturers are leveraging the rapid pace of technology innovation to improve the way they make things.”

She said 3D printing is allowing automakers to prototype new designs quickly and make particular components cheaper and more efficiently.

Ollie 3D-printed bus
Mixed materials are used for 3D printed hubcaps.

A Workhorse for Parts and Prototypes

Built via an additive manufacturing (AM) process where layers upon microscopic layers fuse together, 3D-printed components can outperform and outlast their traditional counterparts.

“Imagine your doctor being able to recommend a customized vehicle seat for your back problems,” said Rogers. “Or how people with disabilities, who typically must purchase expensive specialty vehicles, will in the future be able to select their exact configuration needs from a computer program.”

While 3D printing has been mostly used for concept design and prototyping, the promise of the tech is vast, including the ability to get a functional part into an engineer’s hands in a matter of days, rather than the weeks or months by traditional methods.

In the past three decades, 3D printing has evolved to sit at the intersection of engineering, electronics, chemistry, material science, nanotechnology and computer science.

Today, 3D printing is a truly “disruptive” technology in manufacturing, most commonly used to make manufacturing tools and industrial parts.

3D printer car parts
3D printers drop printed car parts onto a conveyor belt.

In most cases, 3D printing relies on a process called “powder bed fusion.” Tiny particles of the build material are laid out in a precise CAD-derived pattern and fused together by a laser or an electron beam. The part is built upward, layer by layer.

Another process called CLIP (continuous liquid interface production), developed by California start-up Carbon3D, pulls a complete, solid product from a melt of plastic material. No layering or fusing is required.

Taking 3D Printing to the Next Level

Increased size, speed and the ability to use different materials are allowing 3D printers to do more than ever, according to Tim Simpson, professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering, and co-director of the 3D lab at Penn State University.

“Advanced plastics being developed today are especially exciting for vehicle and aeronautical applications,” he said, adding that automakers are especially enthusiastic about high-temperature metals and alloys, plastics and ceramics.

“These materials make vehicles lighter weight and more energy efficient.”

By using 3D printers, automakers can decrease costs, improve efficiency and reduce the manufacturing environmental footprint. The cost of shifting to a new car design can cost less for 3D-printed vehicles than traditional manufacturing tools, which also require more floor space than 3D printing equipment.

For example, Local Motors’ business model relies on “micro-factories” that can manufacture vehicles in small batches.

According to Simpson, these can be scaled to meet the needs of the regions in which they are located, while adding jobs to the local economy.

“We are starting to see some disruption in the market, with smaller manufacturers coming out with highly customized vehicles,” said Simpson.

Big players like Peugeot, for example, recently partnered with a 3D printing start-up to begin 3D printing components.

A New Era of Creativity

3D printing and the technologies that power it give engineers immense freedom to share, collaborate and view the design process in new ways.

“3D printing requires considerable planning and simulation ahead of time, which makes for better design, faster manufacturing and higher quality,” said Petrick.

A good example is a recent project at Penn State, where Simpson’s engineering team was asked by a client to design and 3D-print a piston crown — the top part of a piston that must endure extremely hot engine temperatures. The work included designing into the CAD program the location and dimensions of cooling and lubrication channels in the crown.

3D-printed piston head
Penn State engineering team’s CAD model of a piston crown showing internal cooling channels and support ribs made possible by metal additive manufacturing. Credit: Corey J. Dickman, Penn State CIMP-3D.

“This allowed us to create a design that removes heat faster and improves overall thermal control in the piston,” explained Simpson.

But the digitization of manufacturing is riddled with curveballs and bottlenecks, said Simpson.

“The challenges the opportunities are huge, but the tools are way behind,” he said.

“The tool chain that you need to get from your idea to your computer model to do your analyses, run your simulation, prep your build – you’ve got to go through five, six, seven different packages software tools.”

We’re just at the beginning of what the future holds for 3D printing technology. Machine size, speed of manufacturing, large-volume production and ensuring 3D-printed cars are highway safe are all challenges that need to be overcome before full commercialization of 3D-printed vehicles takes hold.

Even so, Local Motors’ Rogers is confident it will happen.

“We will be able to offer the world an entirely new kind of vehicle,” he said, “while also producing positive impacts on financials, on the environment and on human beings.”

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