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With 3D Technology, You Can Print Your Ride

Noah Goldstein — September 29, 2014

At the recent International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, a car was printed in just 44 hours.  A sporty-looking black coupe, the Strati was built using a large-scale printer known as a Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) system.  A BAAM can build products that reach up to 8 feet in length, as opposed to the 1-foot dimension now available from desktop commercial 3D printers or at your nearby UPS Store.  Printing the body of the car in carbon-reinforced ABS plastic live at the conference, the demonstrators showed the utility of 3D printing for industrial and commercial products.  Not that cars can or will be mass printed anytime soon, but the cost and time in the engineering design process, from concept to design to prototype, can be reduced for high-end industrial products.  The likelihood of seeing a Strati roll down your street anytime soon is very, very small.  Perhaps if the Strati was printed with carbon fiber or other strong materials from new arrival MarkForged, coming across one in public would be more likely.

The use of 3D printing in the automotive industry is increasing, even though automakers have been using advanced manufacturing for decades.   Ford has used 3D printing for testing axles, brake rotors, and cylinder heads.   General Motors (GM) recently highlighted the use of 3D printing to prototype parts for the 2014 Chevy Malibu, both inside and out.  At GM’s Rapid Prototyping lab, the front end was redesigned, printed, and tested for aerodynamics in the wind tunnel, cutting costs and saving time.  Inside the car, designers are using 3D printing to test the visual look and accessibility of parts like internal trim and seat-back panels.  Yet, it took an act of nature for GM to make waves in the 3D printing world.  In early September, a rainstorm caused flooding in GM’s Rapid Prototyping facility in Detroit, Michigan, ruining equipment.  As a result, GM purchased over $6 million worth of 3D Systems products, including the iPro 8000 Stereolithography printer.  In the small 3D printing world, this is large, as it validates the value of the small form factor 3D printer.

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Other manufacturers are showcasing the use of 3D printing.  A scaled-down version of Toyota’s FT-1 concept car, presented in April at the New York International Auto Show, now seems like old news.  At first glance, the same appears true for Honda printing 3D versions of its concept cars.  Yet, Honda is going one step further by making the printing plans (the computer-aided design [CAD] files) available for free download, in the hopes that fans will print their own designs, creating a new kind of conversation between designers and consumers.

The most interesting deployments of 3D printing in cars are still in the concept stage.   As part of his master’s thesis at the Umea Institute of Design in Sweden, Erik Melldahl worked with BMW to design the Maasaica, an off-road coupe designed for rural Africans.  Printed from a biodegradable material composed of mycelium mushrooms and grass, the material can be grown in a number of days.  The car would collect ambient water for cooling and local uses, and it would be connected to the Internet.  Melldahl’s bushmobile highlights how 3D printing is changing industry – by enabling the redefinition of what a car is, how it’s made, and how it interacts with its environment and its users.

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