3D printing in the automotive market is on the rise. SmarTech Publishing predicts that as of 2021, the 3D printing industry will have generated nearly $2.3 billion in revenue. Paired with the rise of the Internet of Things, it seems that 3D printing and 3D printed car parts are to be among some of the most anticipated, latest technologies in the auto industry.
What does the process of 3D printing a car part look like though? Get behind the printer for yourself and you’ll find that the process is more in-depth than you may expect.
An introduction to automotive 3D printing and prototyping
3D printing in the automotive industry relies on the use of industrial 3D printers. Industrial 3D printers do more than generate the final product that a car manufacturer needs to integrate into the body of the vehicle. Rather, there are a number of steps that precede that final print.
When 3D printing a car part for a to-be-made vehicle, car manufacturers cannot just make use of the shape and functionality of existing parts in order to create an effective 3D prototype. The form of the part that a manufacturer wants to print has to be built via CAD designing software.
Once the basic form of the part has been created, manufacturers have to decide what process they want to utilise to print the product: stereolithography or selective laser sintering, both of which will be touched on momentarily.
After deciding how to divide up the part in question, the CAD software file needs to be converted into .STL format in order to be recognised by a 3D printer. For every aesthetic or functional modification that takes place, new prototypes of the car part in question need to be developed.|
There are several ways to print a 3D project. The most common of these processes is referred to as stereolithography. In order to utilise stereolithography to print a 3D car part, the original CAD file containing the part’s design needs to be broken down into horizontal layers.
This way, an industrial 3D printer can manoeuvre back and forth over its platform and build the car part up one layer at a time.
Selective Laser Sintering
While stereolithography can be used to help 3D print smaller car parts, most industrial 3D printers will utilise SLS, or selective laser sintering. This process fuses together particles of glass, plastic, or available metals with a high-powered laser until the 3D part is produced.
Selective laser sintering has been utilised not only by the automotive industry but also to advance healthcare and aerospace exploration, as the printing process comes along with a number of practical benefits.
These include but are not limited to:
Overall reduction of operating costs in an industrial setting;
Precise creation of car parts and their internal intricacies;
Use of an array of high quality and high performance materials, plastic or otherwise;
Excellent recyclability rates designed to better serve the environment and save manufacturers money;
Thermal stability designed to preserve the created parts for long-term use.
The benefits of 3D printed parts
While 3D printing’s ambitions are great, current utilisation of the practice in the automotive industry has been limited. Because 3D printing is ideal for smaller parts, jigs and fixtures are some of the car parts that are most commonly 3D printed.
Jigs and fixtures made from a range of versatile and heat-resistant plastics are lighter than their metal cousins and can reduce the overall weight of a car while also reducing the cost of that car’s production.
Not only that, but the use of additional plastics in the creation of car parts presents a number of automotive manufacturers the opportunity to explore eco car manufacturing. With improved automotive technologies like those that power electric and hybrid cars eliciting demand among consumers, the opportunity to list a vehicle as ethically produced with the environment in mind presents manufacturers with a powerful selling point.
The limitations of 3D printed parts
That said, the future of 3D printers in the automotive industry, like the future of smart motorways, is growing slowly.
While it cannot be denied that the drive to integrate 3D printing into automotive manufacturing is increasing, there are limitations to the practice’s current usefulness. A number of materials, including alloyed metals, are difficult for 3D printers to process at this point in time. As such, further development of the industrial printers used by some manufacturers is necessary before automotive plants see industrial printers as essential on the floor.
The benefits of 3D printing car parts are numerous. Not only do manufacturers have the opportunity to lower their operating costs, but they can also lessen the carbon footprint of their vehicles.
Partner 3D printing with automotive technologies such as connected cars (courtesy of V2V), and you can see how these environmentally-oriented and business-friendly technological developments will drive the automotive industry forward in the years to come.