Automotive Industry

Your masterclass in product design and development


Protolabs’ Insight video series

Our Insight video series will help you master digital manufacturing.

Every Friday we’ll post a new video – each one giving you a deeper Insight into how to design better parts. We’ll cover specific topics such as choosing the right 3D printing material, optimising your design for CNC machining, surface finishes for moulded parts, and much more besides.

So join us and don’t miss out.


Insight: Automotive Industry


Hello and welcome to this week’s Insight.

We are going to explore again how digital manufacturing meets the needs of a specific industry. So today we will be getting to grips with how it can help the automotive industry.

And there is no doubt that this industry faces some tough challenges. While the combustion engine has had more than a century to evolve, the industry has just 10 years to develop an equally reliable and convenient electric option.

Also, while 100 years ago people were happy with Henry Ford’s famous black car, now we want a car that is built for us. Unfortunately, the industry still relies on mass production, so how can it attain new levels of personalisation within this existing infrastructure? 

There are some tough questions that need answering.

Luckily manufacturing technology is evolving rapidly and it can help make those challenging leaps into the future.



Whether it’s to design new lighter weight components or parts, or to deliver customised features for a customer, the industry and its supply chain must be more agile.

The great news is if you partner with the right suppliers, the technology does exist to help to deliver what is needed rapidly, so there is no need to hold up the production line.

Industrial 3D printing is a great example of this.

It can allow you to develop prototypes from both metal and plastic in incredibly short time frames.  Depending on what you want you can upload your CAD design and have a part delivered within a day. 

It means you can test it, reiterate the design and make sure that it is 100 percent right before committing to mass production.



3D printing also allows you to design shapes and geometries that are simply not possible using other manufacturing technologies.  This could be an organic shape or a honeycomb structure to take weight out of a part.

Other options for bridge manufacturing or low volume production are CNC machining or injection moulding. There are suppliers who can turn around parts in as little as 1 day – even using these technologies.

In fact get them more involved right from the beginning of a part’s development because the chances are what you thought was an impossible deadline is now possible.

But for now I’m going to explore what is possible using industrial 3D printing for just two materials –copper and polypropylene.

Why these two materials? Well copper is becoming increasingly important as we move towards electrification, and polypropylene is the most common plastic used by the industry. The latter is highly durable, tough and light; perhaps that is why it is used for up to 32 percent of all the plastic found in many cars.

But let’s start with copper. Until recently if you wanted to prototype or produce a copper part then you would probably have to turn to CNC machining.



Now that you can get 3D printed copper parts your engineering design world has really opened up. It means you can develop geometries that were simply not possible before either, in order to save weight or to reduce the number of components.

Typically, it will be a low alloyed copper material. This still has great electrical and thermal conductivity and has better mechanical and corrosion resistance than pure copper.

Don’t get me wrong, for some applications you may still be better to opt for a CNC machined part.  The best thing is to speak to your supplier who can offer both technologies.

Okay what about polypropylene? Again, this is a new material for 3D printing, until recently you just couldn’t do it.

But new developments in this material mean that now you can. And this means that you can get a prototype of a new part in the same material that it will be manufactured from in as little as 1 day; so that you can test it not only for form but also for function before committing to full manufacturing.

Just like with copper, 3D printing this material opens new design horizons. If you want something a bit different, to personalise a dashboard for example, then why not?  The point is you are no longer restricted by the manufacturing technology available to you.

Of course, you don’t have to plump for 3D printing, if you don’t need a complex design or require high volumes then CNC machining or injection moulding may be a better answer.

Both copper and polypropylene are important materials in automotive components but there are many others such as thermoplastics, nylons, liquid silicone rubber, and aluminium among other metals.



The point that I am really making is that both material science and new manufacturing technologies are evolving quickly and that means there are always new options for design engineers to explore.  Talk to your suppliers throughout the supply chain and get them involved in part and component development.

Much of what was impossible until recently, is now possible. Who knows what the near future will bring? Get your supply chain involved in product development and we can help you respond to many of the difficult challenges ahead.

That’s it for this week. I look forward to seeing you again next Friday.



With special thanks to Natalie Constable.

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