Written by John Meadowcroft ▼

Why 3D printing is the future of the car industry

Take a look at the video below. It's amazing. It's a prototype of an Audi being built, with the parts being constructed via a 3D printer:

Eh, hang on? a 3D printer?

What's that?

It's exactly how it sounds. Instead of printing a normal piece of paper with a picture of a cat or something else on it, a 3D printer constructs a 3D image of, well, anything you see fit.

Sounds complicated, and very futuristic, but it's actually quite simple. A 3D printer can make solid objects in incredible detail with the use of a materials printer. You're pretty much only limited by your imagination. Hell, even a building's been printed by one of these bad boys!

You're likely to see a hell of a lot more of these, too. Since 2003 sales of 3D printers have exploded, as people discover more practical uses for them. According to Forbes, the Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing to you and I) market will reach $3.1 billion worldwide by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.

So how does it work?

All you have to do is make a 3D model of something via CAD (Computer Aided Design) or animation modelling software.

The 3D printer will then analyse the data in the drawing, and build a 3D model using layers of material. Depending on the complexity of the model, printing can take several hours, or even days at a time to complete.

All sorts of different materials can be used depending on the process used. Plaster can be used as a base material in plaster-based 3D printing, for instance, while almost any kind of alloy metal can be used in direct metal laser sintering.

Stop being boring.

Sorry, we got ahead of ourselves a bit.

The best thing is that the technology's already here, and we can start using it today. Take Jim Kor. He's already created a fully-functioning car with his 3D printer called the 'Urbee'. Jim is a professional engineer who has over 35 years' experience in designing cars, heavy-duty vehicles and much more.

The Urbee is a two-passenger hybrid that's designed to be economically-sustainable, safe to drive and one of the greenest models you can own. The car is incredibly aerodynamic with a drag coefficient of 0.15 (a third-gen Toyota Prius has 0.25), uses electric motors, is capable of 200mpg on an 8 hp ethanol-powered backup engine, and can reach 70mph. Its body is held together by - you guessed it - 3D printer technology.

The practical applications for car owners

urbee_580x0.jpg

It's not just Audi and mad scientists using 3D printing technology, either. Car enthusiasts from all backgrounds are using 3D printers to make car parts, from the smallest, fiddliest components to vital pieces that are essential for a car to run.

One of the most high-profile users of 3D printer technology is the chin himself. American chat-show host Jay Leno is a renowned car fanatic, and has a wonderful collection of older models at his probably-huge house.

Jay, like a lot of classic car enthusiasts, has to deal with problems like rusty parts and obsolete materials as the years go by. Fortunately for him, he's on a comedian's salary, and can afford a NextEngine 3D scanner and Dimension 3D printer.

Says Jay: "People say, "Why not just give the part to your machinist to make?" Well, if the machinist makes it wrong, you still have to pay for it. The scanner allows you to make an exact copy in plastic, fit it and see that it's correct.

"Even when you take plans to a machinist, it can be tricky. Say the part must be 3 mm thick here and 5 mm there. You get it back and then, "Oh no, it doesn't fit; it's too thick," or "It's too thin." My setup lets you create the perfect part. And you could press the button again and again and keep making the part-twice the size, half-size, whatever you need.

"If you have a part that's worn away, or has lost a big chunk of metal, you can fill in that missing link on the computer. Then you make the part in plastic and have a machinist make a copy based on that example. Or you can do what we do-input that program into a Fadal CNC machine; it reads the dimensions and replicates an exact metal copy."

The future of the car industry?

Though a lot of people are showing off by creating race cars the width of a human hair, it's worth noting that 3D printers are available for people to buy now. A quick search on the internet found us a number of 3D printers for under £1,500.

We're adamant that 3D printers will be key to the future of car production, and the best way for creatives to get a job in the industry. Young, indie car designers could bring their ideas to life and completely reinvent the car as we know it.

Existing designers can use it to complement their ideas. Car owners, as shown by Jay Leno, can create their own parts, possibly negating the need to constantly take your car for a service. But what about pirates... will we see pirated cars on the streets? And nudey calendars in garages could get even worse, leading to an influx of mechanics detained at her majesty's pleasure, overloading ouralready crowded prison system...

Or, you could follow Joris Debo's lead from Materialise.com:

"We made a Playstation car, a GP from Citroën, and basically it starts from a 3D model that was used in a Playstation game, and they actually made a concept car out of it, and we made components for that, copper-plated center console.

"It's actually a functional car, it's not only for visual purposes, but you could actually drive that car and use the components. Nowadays, you already see the first manufacturers applying actual 3D printed pieces in actual production cars, which is a very big thing. If the technology advances as fast as desktop computers, within 5-10 years we will be able to print our own car."

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