When we talk about speed with regards to the auto industry, we're usually talking about zero-to-60 acceleration. But what about zero-to-market? That's where 3D Printing is revolutionizing the industry: How quickly car companies can design, test, and produce new vehicles.
Think of all the specialized pieces that go into a functioning automobile—then imagine trying to find those parts for car models that don't yet exist. Increasingly, big-name manufacturers like GM and Jaguar Land Rover are using 3D Printing whenever they need those specialized parts in a hurry. The technology rapidly reduces the time needed to build customized parts used in aerodynamic testing and preproduction prototypes, and it's ideal for creating molds used to mass-produce a slew of parts used in actual production vehicles.
This capability has sparked talk of "printed" cars, and while printing your ride might be an interesting demonstration of the technology's maturity, it wouldn't result in a car many people would want to drive. According to Lee Dockstader, vice president of business development for 3D Systems, the ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic body parts that can be printed would likely be non-structural items like fenders, hoods, trunk lids, and door skins, as opposed to frame rails, floor pans, and other components that need to be crash-absorbent. Furthermore, printed cars would be stylistically limited, because printed ABS plastic doesn't allow for distinctive feature details like creases and lines.
Instead, 3D Printing machines, which cost carmakers between $500,000 and $1 million per unit, are mostly used today to make molds for plastic trim, brackets, air intake hoses, and various "under-hood" components—commonly referred to as "black plastics"—when the time comes to mass-produce these parts via traditional injection molding.