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Metal 3D Printing’s Day is Coming in Automotive

Gordon Styles, President and CEO, Star Rapid
By Gordon Styles President and CEO, Star Rapid

The world is undergoing some radical transformations related to the concept of “motorized transport.” This term was once synonymous with the automobile and the internal combustion engine, along with the conventional infrastructure supporting this technology like asphalt roads, filling stations and repair shops.

However, new technologies are rapidly expanding this category to include a variety of experimental transport solutions like gas-electric hybrids, fully-electric autonomous cars, eBikes, hyperloop elevated trains, jetpacks and flying cars. Given these advancements, it’s difficult to predict which approach will best fulfill our need for personal transport. However, I can safely say that metal 3D printing will be an even bigger part of the solution than it is today.

Metal 3D printing will create the generation of advanced prototypes quickly enough to keep pace with the rapid development of new and modified machine designs. From backyard tinkerers with hoverboards to the massive Airlander 10 airship, the ability to quickly produce one-off parts without hard tooling is essential to inspiring engineers and designers to reach for the skies. These parts must be lightweight and strong and easily modified, which plays right to the strengths of metal 3D printing.

Compared to custom and experimental designs, mass produced vehicles mandate that the manufacturer carries a vast stock of replacement parts for many different models. Gone are the days when shade-tree mechanics could tinker under the hood. Now, modular components must be swapped out, but keeping this stock on hand is quite expensive. I predict that metal 3D printing for on-demand replacement parts will increasingly replace the auto parts warehouse. The philosophy will be print only what you need, when you need it. Local repair garages will have printers in-house, connected to a massive database of dealers’ parts specifications. Have a broken gear on your self-balancing gyro bike? We’ll make you a new one on the spot.

This will also apply to making new parts for old, classic cars long since out of production. Amazon has recently patented its own print-on-demand supply chain model, but others will surely do the same in the near future.

Motorsports, as always, will continue to push the bleeding edge of performance. The current attempt at a world land speed record with the Bloodhound SSC makes extensive use of metal 3D-printed parts. As those applications prove themselves in extreme use, they will trickle down to the mass market, just as carbon fiber has done. But there is one aspect of the metal 3D printing revolution that most people don’t see coming.

Automakers have for decades bought patents for technologies that competed against their own transport monopolies. Remember the 200-mpg carburetor, or the car that runs on water? They still have these patents tucked away. As the death of the internal combustion engine draws near, these patents will be pulled out of a drawer and dusted off.

In an effort to extend the life of the traditional gasoline powered car as far as it can go, metal 3D printing will be used to make those magic “old” devices once again, but even more refined, lightweight and efficient than was previously possible. A 200-mpg engine may really be possible, but previously there was no economic incentive to do so. Without needing a massive investment in tooling, 3D printing will help to keep the dream of the gasoline engine alive for a little while longer until, eventually, the next transport model emerges.

Automakers have already realized the benefits of metal 3D printing for weight reduction in cars and to improve gas mileage. Optimal performance is a major priority for manufacturers, especially for electric vehicles. Metal 3D printing opens a world of possibilities for high-end vehicles with highly-customizable parts. This is just the beginning as metal 3D printing is sure to take the automotive industry to new heights.

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