The concept of 3D printing is simple: just think of it as multiple layers of ink being printed on the same page until the image becomes three-dimensional. Then replace the idea of ink with plastic or metal or some other material that will harden into solid form.
That’s the technology that is transforming the way cars are developed and even how some parts are made.
While the term ‘3D printing’ is widely used by the public, within the industry itself, the process is called “additive manufacturing,” or AM, and it is much broader in scope.
Some have described it as the opposite of the traditional “subtractive manufacturing” techniques used for forming many metal parts, where material is removed using machines such as lathes and mills to achieve parts of specified shape and dimension.
With AM, the materials, which are predominantly plastics but can include metals and even composites such as carbon fiber, are built up rather than removed to achieve the same end result.
Or perhaps not the same. On a recent visit to Ford’s additive manufacturing research lab, Dr. Ellen Lee, technical leader of the group, explained that one of the big advantages of AM is that it can create shapes impossible to achieve with conventional manufacturing techniques – and demonstrated by showing some examples.
The process all starts with a virtual design of the desired object in the form of a digital CAD (Computer Aided Design) file. That file may be created either from a blank screen, as in the design of an all-new part, or with a 3D scanner to copy an existing object such as a model or a current part.
Ford has been employing 3D printing for 30 years, Lee says, and the process has advanced rapidly since then such that 3D printing machines are now available across a range that extends from home hobbyist applications, for a few-hundred dollars at Amazon or Staples, to multi-million-dollar robotic installations capable of producing large auto body parts.
Within the auto industry, AM was initially used primarily for “rapid prototyping” – the construction of dimensionally correct components that can be used to build full-size three-dimensional models for such purposes as visual evaluation and fit checking.
Rapid prototyping is still the predominant use of AM but now many of the parts can be made of the same materials as the end product and used for actual pre-production testing in prototype vehicles. The resultant time- and cost-savings have made AM a mandatory part of the development process for most automakers.
Ford has even used AM to build specialized low-volume parts for racing applications, such as the intake manifolds for the Le Mans-winning Ford GTs, as shown in the accompanying photographs.
Currently, the time limitations of AM make it impractical for high-volume production parts, but with ongoing advances there’s definite production potential for volumes in the tens, hundreds or thousands, if not the hundreds of thousands.
Illustrating that point, as far back as the 2014 North American International Auto Show, a company called Local Motors constructed a complete car, except for chassis and drivetrain, on the show floor during the show. Called the Strati, it comprised 227 layers of additive material. While that initial effort was somewhat crude the company is now producing finished models for sale.
At the 2016 Los Angeles auto show, an LA-based company called Divergent 3D showed both a 3D-printed supercar prototype, called the Blade, and an accompanying motorcycle, called the Dagger, with a 3D printed frame, swing-arm and fuel tank.
And at a consumer electronics show in Japan last year, Honda showed a micro-electric car built using 3D-printed body panels.
It’s not complete cars that hold the most interest, however. It’s the potential to quickly produce low-volume components that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive if not impossible.
They could include low-demand replacement parts for vehicles in need of repair or reproduction parts for older models – even classic cars – that are no longer available.
They also create the option of rapidly customizing a vehicle to suit a customer’s specific taste. Perhaps something as simple as changing the color or texture of an interior trim bit. Or as a sophisticated as forming a steering-wheel or shifter grip to perfectly match the driver’s hand.
The process of 3D printing is still in its infancy. What it could lead to may be limited only by our imagination.
A video produced by Ford provides further explanation of the 3D printing process and how it is used.