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3D Printing could revolutionize the way auto parts are made

While autonomous driving aids and connectivity are dominating the automotive product news these days, there’s another nascent technology that promises to be just as disruptive on the manufacturing side of the business: 3D printing.

3D printing could revolutionize the way auto parts are made, at least in certain contexts. It’s already doing so at the developmental and pre-production levels and its impact could eventually extend as far as the dealer’s parts department.

The term 3D printing is used in the vernacular because the process is similar in principle to laser or inkjet printing.

It differs in terms of the material deposited and the fact that it’s built up layer upon layer to create a three-dimensional object. Each layer is in effect a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.

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, are built up rather than removed to achieve the same end result, in terms of shape and dimension.

The most commonly used technology is stereolithography (SLA), which employs a liquid ultraviolet-curable photopolymer resin and an ultraviolet laser to build the object’s layers one at a time.

For each layer, the laser beam traces a cross-section of the part pattern on the surface of the liquid resin. Exposure to the UV laser light cures and solidifies the pattern traced on the resin and joins it to the layer below.

The process all starts with a virtual design of the desired object in the form of a digital Computer Aided Design (CAD) 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.

The process has advanced rapidly since its introduction in the 1980s. 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 a whole car body.

Within the auto industry, AM was initially used primarily for what was called “rapid prototyping” — the construction of dimensionally-correct components that could 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.

Currently, the time limitations of AM make it impractical for high-volume production parts, but there’s definite production potential for volumes in the tens, hundreds or thousands, rather than 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.

It’s not a complete car like the Strati that holds the most interest for dealers, however; it’s the potential to produce components on the spot, both as replacement parts for vehicles in need of repair and as customized features for individual customers.

Consider the problem of back-orders now often encountered with slow-moving and low-volume parts: Wouldn’t it be easier just to download a CAD file and produce the needed part right on your own premises? And wouldn’t it help keep your customers happy?

Consider also the potential to rapidly customize a vehicle to suit a customer’s specific taste — perhaps something as simple as changing the colour or texture of an interior trim bit. Or it could be as sophisticated as forming a steering-wheel or shifter grip to perfectly match the driver’s hand.

Then there’s the prospect of reproducing parts for older models — even classic cars — that are no longer available.

The process of 3D printing is still in its infancy. What it could lead to may be limited only by our imagination.

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