How 3D Printing Drives Change in the Automotive Industry

Ever since Henry Ford installed the first moving assembly line for the mass production of an entire automobile in December 1913, the automotive industry has been a bellwether for innovation in modern manufacturing. The data was impressive even then, with the time it took to build a car reduced from more than 12 hours to two hours and 30 minutes.

That pace of change and innovation continues to accelerate, with 3D printing playing a pivotal role.

It’s true that 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), has been used for a while now in the automotive industry. In fact, according to a 2015 Wohlers Report, motor vehicles constituted 16.1% of the 3D printing market that year. Initial applications often focused on rapid iteration of car designs. Today, automotive manufacturers of every type are implementing 3D printing in other areas, such as digital inventory, legacy parts, and custom tooling.

3D printing for digital inventory

Historically, inventory and distribution in the automotive industry conjured images of spare and replacement parts physically stacked in massive warehouses, taking up space until needed.

A recent Forbes article shines the spotlight on the rise of digital inventory solutions, which feature on-demand production facilities strategically situated around the world. With this new link in the global supply chain, digital files are sent securely to 3D printers to create automotive parts on demand. The immediate logistic benefits are twofold: speedier delivery of parts to waiting customers and reduced carbon footprint of freight.

For German luxury automotive maker Porsche, manufacturing and storing spare parts for its classic cars did not make financial sense given the low demand. To meet unpredictable requirements, Porsche is now using 3D printing for metal and plastic parts and has added a spare parts digital inventory to its catalog. This helps keep classic cars on the road – and classic car owners loyal and happy.

Industrial 3D Printer

Legacy replacement parts have been 3D printed by a Markforged customer

3D printing of legacy parts

It’s no secret that finding and recreating after-market parts for classic cars can be a challenging proposition. The older the vehicle, the bigger the challenge. 3D printing offers a solution that enables companies to meet customer demands more quickly and thus differentiate themselves in the marketplace, as one Markforged customer discovered.

A full-service contract manufacturer working in the automotive, aerospace, and petrochemical industries sought a way to stay competitive in a saturated industry by bringing new capabilities to customers. One of their customers presented just the right opportunity: restoring the original carburetor for a 1930s classic car. When efforts to repair the part proved impossible, the contract manufacturer took the leap to 3D metal printing. They reverse-engineered their customer’s carburetor cap using 3D scanning technology and printed a model on their Markforged carbon fiber printer using Onyx material to verify the fit with existing components. The carburetor was then 3D printed in 17-4 PH Stainless Steel on the Markforged Metal X printer. This was a game changer for the contract manufacturer, thanks to 3D printing that met the company’s needs when it came to technology, price, and customer satisfaction.

3D printing for custom tooling

In the automotive industry, the push for continuous improvement in vehicle performance often generates a need for the creation of unique, complex component parts. With 3D printing, parts can be designed and tooled for a specific vehicle or driver.

Take prototype race cars and bikes in the motorsport world for example, where vehicles are custom built to maximize performance on the track and race ahead of the competition. The speed with which the design of a new component can be modified and how long it takes to remanufacture are key factors for success. That’s exactly why the Moto2 motorcycle racing team TransFIORmers is using 3D printing for its new front suspension design. This approach quickly delivers a one-of-a-kind wishbone front suspension titanium part. The final product is 40% lighter and far more rigid than when created with other materials and methods.

Industrial 3D Printer

Custom tools can be 3D printed to assist in the manufacturing of cars

What’s down the road?

You could say the future is already here, as 3D printing is being used to produce complete cars – everything from utility concept cars and sporty electric cars to vehicles designed specifically to aid scientific research. 3D printing is also revolutionizing classic car restoration, like the recreation of Elvis’s BMW 507 which included a number of 3D printed components. Further down the road? Don’t be surprised to see totally 3D printed cars, mass produced and available for purchase.

Markforged 3D printers are definitely along for the ride – offering automotive manufacturers the ability to make products faster, cheaper, and more efficiently by integrating 3D printing into the manufacturing workflow. Our metal and carbon fiber 3D printers improve supply chain efficiency by reducing manufacturing downtime with on-demand production. We also help speed time to market with 3D printers that can print up to 50x times faster than traditional manufacturing methods, all the while delivering up to 20x lower costs. All good reasons why automotive giants as well as thousands of automotive OEMs across 50 countries use Markforged printers to produce same-day prototypes, end-use parts, and tooling and fixtures.