3D printing might be one of the most unbelievable-yet-true technological concepts we’ve come across in recent years. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like it should exist outside of a movie about the future. However, a wide variety of objects can now be 3D printed–from mini power tools to a castle, from shoes to human body parts—and even the automotive world has begun to use 3D printing.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, uses lasers to build objects by adding very thin layers of material one on top of the other. Computer programs design and execute the building, and can therefore make changes fairly easily. With 3D printing, objects—like car parts—can be assembled in minutes, with much less human labor than traditional automobile manufacturing requires.
The Latest in 3D-Printed Vehicles:
The only 3D-printed car available to consumers in any form (beta testing, in this case) is the LM3D printed car by Local Motors. Billed as “sustainable, safe, and smart,” the company hopes to have them ready for sale to everyone in 2017. LM3D cars will be made from 75% printed materials, significantly cutting down on factory production emissions and costs. For safety compliance reasons, the cars will all have the same base, but they’ll offer a wide range of 3D-printed customizable aesthetic features that could make each car “look radically different.”
There are some exciting 3D-printed vehicle prototypes out, like Divergent3D’s Blade, which the company says will create a “renaissance in car manufacturing” by allowing small microfactories to quickly produce eco-friendly vehicles. All other 3D-printed cars are still in the concept and prototype stages, including:
- 3D-printed Shelby Cobra–a functional prototype made from 75% 3D-printed materials.
- EDAG Light Cocoon–a physical concept car made from 60% 3D-printed materials.
- Lotus 340r–a functional concept built to demonstrate how 3D printed parts can replace old or damaged original parts on rare vehicles.
A Game-Changer: What’s the Case for 3D Printing?
But while you can’t buy a 3D-printed car yet, automobile manufacture Daihatsu, a subsidiary of Toyota, just announced a potentially industry-changing angle to the 3D printing with customizable, printable parts, available with their Copen car (a little convertible two-seater) in select markets now. Daihatsu is the first company to offer 3D-printed vehicle customization.
The main draws of a 3D-printed vehicle modification are price and uniqueness. With 3D printing, vehicle customization is no longer just for the very rich. In limited markets now, and in a wider release in 2017, Daihatsu customers can choose from 15 “effect skins” which are decorative panels customers can modify. The panels are then placed on the front and backs of the cars, explains The Economist. Instead of choosing from pre-set designs, customers will be able to add their own vision to the designs which were “inspired by fashion and nature…and range from geometric to organic.” The skins are made from thermoplastic material and printed with machines made by Stratasys, an American 3D printing company.
The Future of Automobile Design
Customization and Manufacturing
3D printing has the potential to radically shift the way vehicles are manufactured. With 3D printing, single-room microfactories could quickly and easily build cars at a fraction of the cost that now goes into production. We’ve talked about what this might mean for manufacturing workers, but 3D printing also has the potential to really change how we shop for and purchase cars. Think: unlimited customization options.
Because 3D-printed cars are designed and built with software technology, once the practical side is worked out (as in, how to print all types of materials), customizable features beyond superficial decals might be available quickly and cheaply. Instead of needing highly trained experts to work with traditional machines moulding metal and wood (a slow, expensive process that makes changes and modifications difficult), all that would be required is a software update.
Open Source and 3D-Printing
We’ve written about the latest developments in the open-source model for vehicle design–a model in which vehicle blueprints, patents, and technology are readily available for everyone from long-standing manufacturers to the tinkerer down the street. The idea is that with everyone collaboratively creating and building vehicles, technology will advance more quickly and with better quality and innovation.
One of the most exciting manufacturing applications of the open source model could be 3D printing. Kota Nezu, owner of Tokyo-based company Znug Design, facilitated the collaboration between Daihatsu and the artist who designed their new 3D customizable features. Nezu is a believer in the open source model, stating, “What really interests me is making cars even better, more enjoyable products for their customers. That’s where I sense a lot of possibility—cars could become more open-source products where the customer or a third party can come in and help make the automobile industry more customizable. And with Stratasys 3D Printing technology, open and innovative manufacturing is now possible.”
What vehicle features would you customize for your car?