Where 3D Printing fits in the automotive sector

Previously, I have considered, generically, where 3D printing fits in the manufacturing enterprise — where it is used daily, where it could be used more, and some of the great potential it holds. In this post (and in upcoming posts), it seems fitting to examine specific vertical markets where 3D printing technology has disrupted the status quo. I’ll start with the automotive industry — mainly because it was one of the first sectors to seriously embrace the tech back in the early 1990s.


Image via F1 Fanatic

Through a historical lens — then and now

The automotive industry has a lot of experience when it comes to using 3D printing technologies. Today, the early adopters — the likes of Land Rover (now Jaguar Land Rover, part of Tata Motors), Ford, and BMW — are surging ahead in application development with 3D printing technologies. Back then, in the rapid prototyping (RP) era, the technology base was often referred to as “paradigm changing.” It became a somewhat overused phrase, similar to the hype of today.

And like the current hype, it generated cynicism among users and potential users. Now that we have 25 years (ish) of commercial use of 3D printing technologies under our collective belts, it is possible to say, with conviction, that 3D printing has completely changed the paradigm for developing cars — irreversibly.

Obviously not all automotive companies bought in at the beginning, but the early adopters of 3D printing for prototypes (including motorsport teams) have played a significant part in pushing the boundaries of the processes, demanding new materials, driving application developments, and embedding the technologies into various stages of their workflow.

This is often the result of direct partnerships with the platform vendors — you only need a quick Google search to see how the likes of BMW, Ford, Lamborghini, General Motors and Jaguar Land Rover all have suites of 3D printers in different geographic locations and support different 3D printer vendor companies with case studies and marketing materials.

Today, the information and applications being promoted reflect just how far the processes have advanced. And we’re still talking multiple processes with many of the big OEMs running a number of them because no single process suits all applications. There is still a trade-off! The drivers for adoption, however, remain largely unchanged — speeding up time to market and reducing product development costs.


If we take JLR as an early adopter example (it was actually just Rover back then, but there has been much consolidation in the auto sector too) — the company installed its first machine in-house back in 1990 —a large frame stereolithography (SLA) platform from 3D Systems. Today, JLR’s has one of the UK’s largest installed 3D printing facilities, with four different 3D printing processes in-house — SLA, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), PolyJet and Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM).

According to the company, the primary application remains functional prototypes, but where we see a paradigm change is that back in 1990, the machine may have produced a couple of prototypes a week. While that provided huge time and cost savings relatively speaking, today JLR reports that it produces in excess of 50,000 3D printed components annually. Moreover, on the original SLA machine, a prototype would be doing well if it survived a week without deformation or complete deterioration — today many of the functional prototypes produced are directly fitted onto prototype vehicles for testing — a testament to the advancements in process and materials.

Similarly, GM, which also uses different processes (SLS and SLA), produces around 20,000 prototype parts per year. Upping the ante further is Ford, which operates five 3D printing centres across the US and Europe and quotes 20,000 prototype parts from just one site in a single year.

3D printing in motorsport

Formula 1 teams, back in the day, were among the most vociferous in sharing knowledge and promoting the benefits of 3D printing. They seem more reticent these days. Their OEM status & big budgets as well as their keen eyes for new advantage-offering technologies were drivers for adoption though. Let’s face it, motorsports grab headlines and global audiences and as a result involve lots and lots of money. For years the engineering and car development was shrouded in mystery. However, today, there is somewhat more visibility. It seems many people are just as interested in what goes on behind the scenes as out on the iconic racing circuits

Like the historical 3D printing timelines of the OEMs, the F1 teams primarily bought into rapid prototyping to diminish their development times. More iterations achieved more quickly do not, traditionally, have a relevant cost implication at the development stage for race teams. But if that translates to even a millisecond on the track, the investment is justifiable.

3D printing processes are now in-house as a matter of course at all the big teams — for concept development, functional prototypes and wind-tunnel models. The time saved is now fundamental to the development timeline and 3D printers have allowed teams to downsize their machine shops. However, today 3D printing is being used for some end-use parts — a small number of components, proportionally speaking, and non-critical in terms of performance, which is testament to where 3D printing processes and the materials are up to — it is still early days for manufacturing. But it has arrived.


Another then and now story to illustrate progression — in 1996, Williams F1 were the first recipients of the SLA 5000 machine. They brought the process in-house to expedite the development process of complex parts that required high accuracy. Working closely on applications with the vendor (3D Systems) they developed a suspension upright that was traditionally produced via CNC machining and took in excess of 4 weeks at an eye-watering cost.

With 3D printing they produced the suspension upright using QuickCast materials, which could then be cast in Titanium by a foundry — the whole process took about a week. In the last two decades thing have progressed dramatically whereby the team can produce a much broader portfolio of fully functional complex parts and assemblies courtesy of a range of industrial 3D printing processes. This includes the most recent addition of FDM, specifically the Fortus production platform.

Advanced current applications where the tech is standard practice for wind tunnel testing of the car, parts for moulding, and some end use parts. Williams F1 continues to assess 3D printing technology to extend its application to direct production. Currently there are a limited number of non-critical plastic components directly produced with 3D printing on the track cars. Metal 3D printing is also part of this continual assessment. However, currently Williams F1 outsources its 3D printed metal parts having made a conscious decision not to invest yet.

Automotive apps that are not directly about the car 

One of the less sexy applications of 3D printing for direct manufacture within the automotive industry is the production of jigs and fixtures for use on the assembly line. Two of the key benefits of 3D printing processes, namely customization and speed (compared with traditional processes) have seen many automotive factories employing the technology to this end, and saving a pile of money in the process.

On a modern production line, specific jigs and fixtures are used to position and hold components in place and are essential to maintaining an efficient workflow. 3D printing processes have proved to be invaluable in producing jigs and fixtures on demand and customized to their function on the assembly line. BMW Group was among the first auto company to implement this application across its production lines, and other companies include Porsche, Volvo, and Audi.


In a similar vein, last year BMW Group introduced a pilot programme for its production line workforce that went beyond customization to true personalization. At the company’s Munich vehicle assembly plant a new and innovative ergonomic tool was introduced — a flexible finger cot, which protects workers’ thumb joints while carrying out certain assembly activities. Each thumb cot was designed to precisely fit the thumb of each worker by taking a scan of each individual thumb and 3D printing the tool. With its extensive in-house 3D printing facilities, the BMW Group produced all of the orthotic devices in-house.

Looking to the future — local motors & the aftermarket

Hard to consider the automotive industry and 3D printing without considering the rise of Local Motors — a start up company (by auto company standards) with ambitions to wholly disrupt the way cars are made. Local Motors was actually founded in 2007 —before 3D printing hit the mainstream headlines  — but last year made plenty of headlines of its own with its so-called “3D printed car.”


Hyped headlines aside (they did their job in garnering attention for the start-up), the Strati vehicle concept was successfully unveiled in early 2015 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. While it has a 3D printed body and structure, these house a traditionally developed and manufactured drive train; as well as ‘normal’ (ie NOT 3D printed) wheels, tyres and lighting systems. This has been explained to people at length, according to Lee Herge, COO of Local Motors. He told me that one of the most common questions they get is “are the tyres 3D printed?” To reiterate, no, they are not. But does that ameliorate those ‘3D printed car’ headlines? Of course not!

But if all you see is a 3D printed car, you’re missing the main point of Local Motors — which is about disrupting the automotive supply chain by way of co-creation and local manufacture at the point of need. This is the vision at the heart of Local Motors — a vision focused on establishing micro factories producing local cars relevant to the region where they are being produced and meeting the needs of that region in the most effective way. 3D printing, as it has proved many times over the years, is an enabler in this regard — a key one as it happens, along with the carbon fibre reinforced ABS material, that is allowing Local Motors to produce its 2nd generation vehicle — the LM3D, which was unveiled at the end of last year, as a road car, ahead of scheduled commercial release this year. So not too far into the future.



Another area where we don’t have to look too far ahead to see significant potential in the automotive sector is the “aftermarket.” You’ve maybe seen videos online of Jay Leno in his garage with a 3D printer that he’s used to produce no-longer-available parts for his considerable classic car collection. The story has been around a while and new iterations of it pop up here and there — that’s celebrity culture for you!

That said, there is an important pointer here for serious 3D printing growth potential for automotive OEMs and their sales channels. Currently the manufacture, supply and fitting of spare and service parts after a car sale demands extensive production runs and stockpiling of spare parts. Replacing this traditional business model with a just-in-time manufacturing model utilising 3D printing is a compelling proposition — allowing parts to be produced on demand and local to the point of demand. Apart from the reduction in waste the arguments for sustainability and environmental benefits are cogent. And as Mr Leno has already demonstrated, the customisation benefits of 3D printing for the restoration of classic cars and the customisation of new or old cars is already doable.


I do believe that 3D printing has considerably and irrevocably disrupted how cars are designed and developed. Automotive OEMs and their suppliers have adopted and accepted 3D printing processes as an essential tool that has improved the product development process in a way that no other technology could have. That said, it cannot now, and likely will not ever exist in isolation. What is more, it continues to challenge how cars are made, but it’s still very early days in that regard.

In the near term, the future of the automotive industry looks fairly stable. Hybrid technology is going to be an important transition for new and existing vehicle manufacturers — both hybrid engine technology and hybrid additive / subtractive technology. But that’s a discussion for another day!


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