Can We Really 3D Print Cars and Car Parts?
Imagine a day when the intrepid tinkerer can download, print, and build a car in his or her own garage. It may sound like science fiction, but it’s coming sooner than you think. Additive manufacturing, better known as 3-D printing, is already a $4.1 billion global industry, and analysts project that advancements in technology will cause it to quadruple in growth over the next five years.
While the technology has the power to transform everything from the practice of medicine to how we eat, 3-D printing has already transformed the way cars are built, and it’s only a matter of time before downloadable cars transform everything from auto repairs to how we buy our cars.
In 2013, 3-D printing made headlines when a group called Defense Distributed uploaded CAD designs for a 3-D printable working handgun to its website. While the potentially dangerous files were taken down by the U.S. State Department, it ignited just how advanced the technology had become, and sparked a national debate on how design, copyrights, and public safety will be regulated in a future where once-complicated engineering can be downloaded and printed in the privacy of one’s home.
Thanks to companies like Makerbot, 3-D printing has become an attainable technology for many Americans (printers can start well under $1,000), but due to its still limited influence, and the necessity of an advanced understanding of computer programming and CAD, personal 3-D printing has been a relative niche industry. But everyone from ambitious startups to industry titans to the U.S. government sees 3-D printing as the future of the automotive industry, and even at this early stage, the results so far have been astonishing.
Like most cutting-edge automotive technology, 3-D printed parts are already popping up in some of the world’s most exotic cars. In 2014, the 1,300-horsepower Koenigsegg One:1 hypercar made history by becoming the first production vehicle with an equal power-to-weight ratio, with one horsepower for every kilogram it weighs.
Of the car’s most most radical and ingenious weight-saving measures, the Swedish company saved 400 grams by 3-D printing the car’s exhaust tip out of titanium. This is the largest titanium piece that has ever been printed, and the advanced printing process takes three days to complete. While the One:1 showcases technology that’s avant-garde even in the 3-D printing world, the Glickenhaus SCG 003 uses a more “traditional” method of 3-D printing for the same outstanding effect.
When car collector James Glickenhaus unveiled his new SCG 003 hypercar at this year’s Geneva Motor Show, 3-D printing was among the many radical technologies showcased in the car. In a direct reference to the Ferrari P4/5 racers that inspired the car, Glickenhaus had a replica of the 1960s-era car’s interior air vent (from his personal collection) modeled, printed, and installed in the SCG 003. While the part isn’t the first thing you’d notice on the $2.5 million racer, it sits prominently atop the car’s carbon fiber dashboard, as well as is a reminder of how far the technology has come in just a few short years.
In 2010, an independently built prototype called the Urbee appeared at the SEMA show in Las Vegas called the Urbee. Built by a small team out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the Urbee was a hybrid hypermiler that could get 300 miles to the gallon. While a number of purpose-built prototypes have been able to achieve similar numbers, what made the Urbee stand out was is its streamlined body constructed entirely of 3-D printed ABS plastic, making it the world’s first printed car. Shortly after the SEMA show, plans were announced for a second car (called the Urbee 2) that could be more production friendly and rely even more on the new technology.
Speaking with Popular Mechanics, Jim Kor, the creator of the car, said, “With Urbee 2, more than 50% of the car will be 3D printed.” He added, “Everything you typically see and touch on the car, as you drive the car, will be 3-D printed.” His small company is currently in the crowd-funding stages to build the Urbee 2 and take it on a trip from San Francisco to New York on just 10 gallons of fuel, with hopes that the trip will attract enough attention to eventually put the car into production.
But while the Urbee 2 sits in crowd-funding limbo, a high-profile upstart had grabbed headlines with its own 3-D printed car. Local Motors first caused a stir in 2007 with its Rally Fighter, a hardcore off-roading coupe built from an open-sourced design. For its next act, the company unveiled an electric car earlier this year called the Strati, a car with a completely 3-D printed body, chassis, and interior. Highlighting just how far the technology has advanced in the five years since the Urbee, Local Motors claims, “Everything on the car that could be integrated into a single material piece has been printed.”
Unlike the ABS plastic used in the Urbee, the Strati utilizes a special carbon-fiber reinforced plastic that was designed in collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which should be more than enough to make the car safe enough to drive on public roads. What can’t be printed comes from the Renault Twizzy, a French-built electric microcar.
Local Motors has big plans for the Strati, including some that make it live up to the company’s name. Once the Strati is deemed roadworthy by the U.S. government, the company plans on opening up to 100 global “microfactories” within the next decade, where the cars would be built and sold in localized regions, and getting the build-time down to 24 hours per car, down from the current 44-hour process.
While Local Motors benefits from technology developed by the Department of Energy’s most prominent research facility, the U.S. government has decided to try its hand at automotive 3-D printing as well, and the result isn’t what you might expect. At the Oak Ridge lab, engineers used its state-of-the-art BAAM (Big Area Additive Manufacturing) Machine to design and build an electric roadster based on the iconic Shelby Cobra and presented it at this year’s North American International Auto Show.
Like the Strati, the Oak Ridge Cobra is constructed almost entirely of the carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, with its entire body and chassis printed from the advanced material. Don’t expect the government to start selling the cars anytime soon, though. The Cobra is purely a showcase for 3-D printing technology.
With startups making headlines and the clout of the U.S. government firmly behind 3-D printing projects, it was only a matter of time before the Big Three threw their hats into the ring. At this year’s SAE World Congress in Detroit, Fiat Chrysler showed off how it uses 3-D printing to develop and prototype powertrain components.
Instead of hand-building expensive and time-consuming metal prototype parts at its Chrysler Technology Center in Michigan, the company has been 3-D printing plastic prototypes for several years to determine the efficiency, oil flow, and durability of new parts. According to Chrysler’s transmission and powertrain vice president, Jeffrey Lux, the process has been instrumental in contributing to the company’s “six new axle families since the foundation for FCA US was established in 2009.”
While these current automotive projects have been rendered in different types of plastic, recent advances are already transforming the nascent industry into something even more versatile, making 3-D printing look even more like a viable manufacturing alternative in the very near future.
In February, the Federal Aviation Administration approved a chrome-alloy housing for use in General Electric jet engines. While this may sound like business as usual for the FAA, the nondescript part will go down in history as the first 3-D printed part approved for use in aviation, a major technological leap forward that has the power to transform both the aviation and automotive industries.
Unlike the superheated plastics used in most current 3-D printing, the GE part uses a cutting-edge process in which metal powder is fused together by electron beams and lasers, building upward to form a solid metal part. This development has the ability to drastically cut down on on the time and cost between prototyping and production, allowing companies like Chrysler to still prototype their parts in metal quickly and cheaply, while avoiding the long development time and high costs associated with hand-forming prototypes and developing new products.
BMW is also heavily invested in 3-D printing, and like Koenigsegg and GE, it’s already using the process to print metal parts. In April, the company announced that it has printed 500 aluminum alloy water pump wheels for cars that will be entered in this year’s German Touring Car (DTM), and GT3 series races. While this could be the most radical step for the technology’s use in production cars, BMW’s reasoning for using printed parts is so logical that it could lay the foundation for other manufacturers to begin using the process for small batch parts:
Firstly, it allows for the inclusion of design refinements in the six-bladed centrifugal pump wheel, whose implementation would require much greater effort with other production methods. With the new method, it was possible to achieve ideal aerodynamics of the component for the DTM race series. Secondly, no complex tools or molds are needed, which makes the demand-oriented production more cost-effective.
The day when a replacement dashboard or bumper is a click a way for the average person may still be a few years off, but there are are already some pioneers blazing a trail. One intrepid computer programmer in New Zealand is slowly building a replica 1961 Aston Martin DB4 in his garage, armed with only a 3-D printer and a high-mileage Nissan Skyline chassis. As collectable cars become more prohibitively expensive by the day, who wouldn’t want an exact replica of a blue-chip classic with just the click of a button and a few weekends’ worth of work?
In just a few years, everything from Chrysler’s new engine block to your oil filter could be just a click away. It may still sound like science fiction, but major automakers, the U.S. government, and a host of startups are all working to make it happen sooner than you might expect.