Here comes the 3D-printed car

It might just turn auto parts making inside out

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January 22, 2015 by Canadian Plastics

Local Motor's Strati 3D-printed car on the road.

Local Motor’s Strati 3D-printed car on the road.

Sci-fi film buffs might remember a late-80s movie called The Fly, in which a scientist develops a machine that instantaneously transfers matter from one location to another through space. “It will change the world as we know it,” he tells an awe-struck reporter. 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — feels a bit like that: from printed houses to printed violins to printed shoes, it might just change the way we make things, permanently.

Take the automotive industry. One day, millions of car parts could be printed as quickly as newspapers and as easily as pushing a button on the office copy machine, saving months of development time and millions of dollars. To call the technology revolutionary doesn’t seem like an overstatement. “Disruptive” might be another way to put it, since it threatens to boot the status quo of automobile manufacturing — which hasn’t really changed much in the century since Henry Ford’s first assembly line — right out the window.

Whether it’s revolutionary or disruptive — or both — plastics processors taking the long view might want to start getting ready for the arrival of the printed auto part.

In truth, 3D printing technology is not a new concept; it’s decades old and is used mostly by engineers and designers to make prototypes, since it can quickly and accurately build a plastic representation of the product. Which is a big deal, as any part designer knows. “Traditional manufacturing processes can be time-consuming, as every part needs to be designed and then fabricated, and the methods for fabrication can require expensive molds and machinery,” said Doug Angus-Lee, rapid prototype account manager for 3D printing with Oakville, Ont.-based Javelin Technologies. But what if the part isn’t perfect or doesn’t fit? Enter 3D printing. “During the design process, being able to touch and hold a 3D-printed part can mean being able to spot issues well before spending money on building a mold or setting up expensive machines,” Angus-Lee continued. “It also replaces hand tooling, which can take days or weeks to make just one part. Instead, that part can be 3D-printed in a matter of hours. Once the part has been proven, it can be manufactured using traditional methods, saving huge amounts of expense in the design phase.”

The technology’s utility is already well-known in the auto industry. The Ford Motor Company, for example, has been on board since day one. In 1988, Ford purchased the third printer ever sold, and since then it has 3D-printed over half a million parts for prototype vehicles.

As Ford’s growing involvement illustrates, recent developments in 3D-printed auto parts are on an order of magnitude more ambitious than even a few years ago. To take one example, the full-size 3D-printed Strati, from auto maker Local Motors, was premiered in September 2014 to international media attention. Although not the world’s first 3D-printed car — a distinction that belongs to a lightweight hybrid vehicle known as the “Urbee”, short form of Urban Electric — the Strati is, for the moment, in a class by itself. And if you think the car is a potential game-changer, you’re right. “The most significant impact of the Strati is that it challenges the status quo of auto manufacturing,” said Alex Chausovsky, an analyst with industry forecasting firm IHS Automotive. “It showed that it’s no longer necessary to produce vehicles from tens of thousands of parts using sophisticated and costly assembly lines.”

Getting back to the more established automakers, the development of the engine cover for the all-new 2015 Mustang is one of Ford’s most recent uses of 3D printing, and also one of the company’s largest printed auto parts. Ford also employs 3D printing to quickly produce a wide variety of prototype parts, shaving months off the development time for individual components used in all of its vehicles. Parts being printed include everything from various vents and ductwork for the air conditioning system to the engine block. Complete truck grills can be printed all the way down to the knobs and switches for the interior controls.

It’s not hard to understand why the auto giant is bullish on 3D printing, along with just about every other carmaker on the planet. “With traditional methods, an engineer would create a computer model of an intake manifold — the most complicated engine part — and wait about four months for one prototype at a cost of US$500,000,” said Paul Susalla, Ford section supervisor of rapid manufacturing. “With 3D printing, Ford can print the same part in four days, including multiple iterations and with no tooling limits, at a cost of US$3,000.”

Another benefit of 3D printing is that it can help find ways to create parts that flat-out couldn’t be manufactured through traditional means. “Being able to test the strength of parts with better, stronger designs and of different materials can lead to much lighter vehicles that are more fuel-efficient,” said Doug Angus-Lee. Again, Ford is a case in point. The newly unveiled Ford F-150 pickup is over 700 pounds lighter than previous models due in part to these design innovations, the company said.

And there’s even an environmental upside. “Using fewer materials and localising production closer to the end-use markets are both eco-friendly practices,” Alex Chausovsky said. Other environmental benefits of localised 3D printing include the elimination of some carbon emissions that would result from transporting products to production facilities, he added. This localization is actually a two-fer, since there’s also an economic savings from sourcing materials right where the car will be driven.

But for all the advancements and all the hype, it’s probably best not to expect too much too soon from 3D-printed auto parts. “While the benefits of 3D printing for the auto industry are clear, it will still take time for widespread adoption to take hold,” said Doug Angus-Lee. “The ultimate goal is to be able to directly 3D-print plastic parts for automotive applications, and the industry is not there yet. There are very few actual end-use parts that are being 3D-printed at present.”

Manufacturing speed — or rather the lack thereof — is the main inhibitor, with items regularly taking hours to print, even days. “Today, 3D printing is not fast enough for the high-volume direct production manufacturing we do,” said Harold Sears, Ford additive manufacturing technical specialist. As technology evolves with time, however, you can bet on that changing. As Alex Chausovsky noted, 3D printing speeds are already doubling about every 18 to 24 months. But there are limits. “Processors can speed up printing times by making the layers thicker, but as soon as they do so they lose surface finish quality,” said Doug Angus-Lee. “Also, a material like ABS can only be extruded at a certain speed before you start to destroy the properties of the part.”

Speaking of properties, part strength can also be a concern. Injection molding provides a very even strength across the part, as the material is of a relatively consistent material structure. “In 3D printing, however, the part is built in layers, which means it has laminate weaknesses, as the layers don’t always bond as well in the Z-axis as they do in the X and Y plane,” Angus-Lee said.

In the end, whether 3D printing will ever revolutionize the automotive industry in the way the assembly line did remains to be seen. “Many have referenced this technology as ushering in a third industrial revolution,” said Harold Sears. “While that is yet to be determined, what we do know is manufacturing is continuing to go digital, the speed of these technologies is increasing and the variety of materials is expanding — all of which leads us to believe 3D printing presents a great opportunity for overall manufacturing.”

As you might recall, that whole matter transportation thing didn’t work out too well in The Fly. Despite some challenges ahead, the future of 3D printing looks a lot more promising.