Building better cars, faster, with 3D printing

By Stephen Dyson

Stephen Dyson, head of Industry 4.0, Protolabs


The use of 3D printing in the automotive industry is not news, in fact, the Ford Motor company purchased one of the first 3D printers ever built more than 30 years ago.

Today, in 2017, the automotive industry is demanding the rapid production of parts in order to speed up the process from prototyping, through to testing, on to production parts.

Business benefits

Start-up businesses such as Carbon 3D, as well as established multinationals such as HP, have received media coverage recently around the development of 3D printers offering even faster build times, and a wider choice of materials, across a range of plastics, metals, and elastomers—polymers with elastic properties, such as rubber.

The challenge is for 3D printing manufacturers is to accurately deliver with the speed demanded. The needs of automotive manufacturers can require parts to be built with a variety of geometries, matching the mechanical properties advertised for respective materials and, in some cases, at process rates of up to 100 times faster than originally proposed.

Speed of production has clear benefits to automotive manufacturers, enabling greater productivity, higher levels of quality at a lower cost, plus the option of mass customisation.

Investing in the future

Many automotive manufacturers are now either investing in 3D printing technology or sourcing service providers with the capability and bandwidth to offer plastic and metal 3D printing services on-demand as and when required.

Technology-agnostic service providers, such as Protolabs, offers speed and scale of production via a range of digital manufacturing options to support the automotive industry as it moves forward.

Carmakers such as Peugeot SA (PSA) Group are investing in new ‘scalable’ production processes with the aim of reducing set-up costs around local automotive production plants, as well as speeding up the assembly process. Elsewhere, the technology used by Divergent 3D, creators of the world’s first 3D-printed supercar, is based around combining traditional 3D-printed joints with carbon fibre cross-sections to create industrial strength modular automotive frames that can be assembled in a matter of minutes.

As the demand for new and innovative uses of 3D printing grows, the supporting technology is advancing to keep pace.  3D printing techniques–current processes and future iterations– provide a critical service for automotive companies to achieve the flexibility they need to invest more, build faster, and reduce costs.