As with the automotive industry, 3D printing technology has come a long way since the 1980s. Combining the two, though, has resulted in a significant step forward for both manufacturers and the aftermarket, writes Danielle Bagnall.
Emissions and the environment have been a growing concern for much of this century, with all political parties marking it high importance within their agendas.
Combining 3D printing with the production and reproduction of parts has proven to be a cost-effective way of bringing down those emissions and reducing plastic waste. It’s even possible to print an entire car using the technology. However, it’s in the rapid prototyping of parts that the use of the technology counts most.
Many manufacturers are turning to 3D to produce a variety of parts; gearshift knobs, airbag components, while pistons and seat parts are just a selection being regularly 3D-printed by top automotive brand manufacturers around the world. Compared to other manufacturing processes new parts can be printed and tested quickly, enabling manufacturers to get to market at speed.
A spokesperson for 3D printing company Photocentric, said: “Challenging geometries and cost implications of traditional manufacturing processes are now being overcome through 3D printing, opening the doors for multiple industries to progress their production capabilities.”
LCD 3D printing was invented by the UK based company, enabling entire layers to be printed at once, rather than a single point of contact to speed up the 3D manufacturing process.
Older, obsolete parts can now be more easily manufactured, helping in some cases to save cars from being written-off.
3D Consultancy saved a Jaguar XK8 from being written off, thanks to the 3D printing of an obsolete part. Brett Rust, technical director and co-founder of the company, said: “The printing of that part for Eastbourne Coach Finishers was just the start of our journey in 3D printing automotive parts, but it’s such a great example of how 3D printing helps the automotive world.
There are many reasons to print your own parts. There is now even more focus to use more sustainable processes and materials. Body shop efficiencies are also improved due to the costs often being much lower than if they were to go to the manufacturer.” There is still some concern surrounding the advancements in vehicle technology and these aftermarket parts potentially not being deemed “safe” or “suitable for use”, but Rust assures us that is no longer a concern.
“If you go back five years; from a safety perspective, no one wanted to take the chance, but there has been much more testing and research and development into the production of 3D parts for automotive,” he said. “We scan and verify each part depending on its application and what it will be used for, so from a safety perspective these are very much guaranteed. Even if we’re confident in the material properties of what we’re using, when it comes to safety-critical aspects of a vehicle and their complexity it’s important to get it right. That’s where additional research and development and testing comes in for the desired application.
The question is a simple one; does the customer want it bad enough that they are willing to invest into research and development costs and testing ready for approval. The individual part’s application and its function will play a big part in whether it is possible to print it safely.”
Rust went on to say that “the best way to print anything is by having an original part that a 3D printing company can scan and copy exactly, but if there is no original then a 3D company can draw it from scratch. It’s not easy to get schematics for parts from OEMs, though.
“Although, there is a lot in the way of schematics and drawings online – the not-too-distant future is sure to see a larger database of drawings that we can all get access to quite easily,” he added.
Durable, lightweight, flexible, and heat resistant resins have all been critical to the continued development of 3D printed automotive parts along with advancements in the printing technology itself. Photocentric’s largest printer, for example (the LC Magna), is compatible with 4D software which creates texturisation and finishes that were previously unachievable.
“These additions will enable manufacturers to choose from thousands of design elements, to create their desired finish. Automotive parts can now be conceived without limits or restrictions, tested repeatedly, and amended again and again at ease,” Photocentric added. Chris Broad, body shop general manager at Eastbourne Coach Finishers Limited, said: “3D printing is a field that we’re very actively involved in. I believe that every large-scale accident repair centre/group will soon have a 3D printer downloading files from TPS or Ford Parts, for example, and printing parts on-site rather than waiting days for delivery.
“I was talking to Brett Rust from 3D Consultancy about the viability of putting one in the back of a van and having that mobile business to help other body shops when they need a part and I think it’s highly likely to take off. If there isn’t a part to scan, you can use the opposite side – which is exactly what we did with the Jaguar XK8. They can print metal now, it’s not just plastic. TPS are printing parts now so I imagine body shops will soon start to pay them for a printing licence. That is until body shops invest in their own printers,” Rust continued: “There’s no doubt that we’ll see even more rapid uptake in the future. It starts with basic stuff such as brackets etc., but the industry will see future growth in the percentage of parts replacement done this way which should hopefully see a decrease in the amount of plastic going into body shop skips. Those numbers have been colossal for years and something needs to change.”