Lighter, Cleaner, Safer, Faster: How 3D Printing is Transforming the Auto Industry

The auto industry is undergoing what is arguably the most disruptive and challenging period since Henry Ford democratized the horseless carriage. While the industry has rebounded considerably since the economic crisis of 2009, enjoying five good years of acceleration in new car sales, drivers seem to have hit the brakes in 2017.

Yet it’s not just a drop in consumer purchasing power that’s slowing auto sales. Our world is changing at exponential speed, and new technologies are being rapidly adopted. Sustainability, the sharing economy, and never-before-seen crowd-based innovation are tearing down old paradigms and dramatically reshaping the way we live. The auto industry is not immune to this tsunami of change.

The fundamental challenge today is the reality that every single aspect of the automotive experience — from who is going to drive cars, to whether we will drive cars — is being shaken to its core. The era of IoT and the promise of autonomous vehicles has catalyzed what is perhaps the largest industrial arms race in recorded automotive history. It is a race for the future of the connected lifestyle, shared mobility and, crucially, the new monetization streams promised by that lifestyle. Automakers are struggling to harvest these new opportunities. Few industry players are prepared for — or even willing to publicly acknowledge — that grand challenges which lie ahead of autonomous shared mobility monetization.

With all of these radical shifts and challenges emerging simultaneously, 3D printing is emerging as the auto industry’s saving grace. In fact, additive manufacturing is already proving itself to be the ultimate game-changer.

Consider this: In 2014, Local Motors unveiled the Strati, a 3D printed car from an ABS carbon-fiber blend. This was four years ago, and the world’s auto manufacturers were already realizing that the industry was heading toward a major shift. Today, 3D printing technology is enabling manufacturers to produce cars that are cleaner, lighter and safer, and to produce them more quickly and at a lower cost. The auto industry’s growing embrace of 3D printing will not only give us cars that are more affordable, but also more technologically advanced and better for the environment. It may almost sound too good to be true.

Lightweighting: A Revolution on Four Wheels

Several technological advances in 3D printing are currently transforming the future of the auto industry. Chief among them is lightweighting.

It’s one thing to harness 3D printing to create car parts like gear shifters, under-hood manifolds, and door handles or manufacturing jigs and fixtures — Volkswagen already does. But what if we could print the entire frame of a car, harnessing generative design, additive manufacturing and new materials to substantially lightweight a car, thus increasing energy efficiency, creating vehicles that are aesthetically pleasing, and in the process merging stylish brand language and generative AI-based design in a phenomenally cost effective way?

Spoiler alert: we already are. When generative meets additive, we can make what was previously considered unmakeable.

Lightweighting automobiles is the only way for automakers to meet and exceed today’s legislative mandates for energy efficiency. Material substitutions alone won’t get us there. Lightweighting, in essence, is the natural and innovative response to legislation which demands reduced emissions and increased energy efficiency in a warming world.

Several auto makers are already ahead of the curve. Peugeot and Divergent 3D now have a partnership built upon Divergent’s introduction of the world’s first 3D-printed supercar. Fittingly called the Blade, it has a carbon-fiber body and a light-as-air chassis. EDAG, a German engineering firm, first drew oohs and ahhs back in 2014 when it unveiled a 3D printed chassis for a luxury vehicle, a combination of beauty and brawn that uses a lightweight prototype surrounded by a lattice-like frame of steel or aluminum.

These exceptions are quickly becoming the rule, and for good reason: 3D printing allows us to build machines faster, in more complex and structurally sophisticated ways, at a fraction of the cost in terms of material, labor, and design. We can better control emissions, we can compensate for drag and thrust, and we can do it faster, smarter, and more sustainably than ever before.

Customization at no added cost

As our cars quickly become mobile Internet hotspots, they will also experience mass customization. And with 3D printing, this customization is essentially free.

Multi-material parts can be 3D printed easily and quickly, and the entire design process is faster, safer, less expensive, and more exciting. With 3D printing technology, car manufacturers can offer drivers complex geometries, such as lattice structures that slash weight and integrate electrical wiring through hollow structures. The design restrictions which previously stood as stumbling blocks in the traditional manufacturing process are being vanquished. With no added premium for a complicated design, additive manufacturing opens the door to endless innovation.

This easy access to increased design complexity unlocks boundless potential. Combine this limitless opportunity with AI-driven topology optimization, bringing to life designs that were much more difficult to model with traditional CAD software, and suddenly you have a low-cost, beautiful method of mass-producing custom features at a scale never before imagined.

Additive manufacturing also means that not only the cars are personalized, but the tools we use to build them. Take BMW, which is now using additive manufacturing to create custom-designed hand tools that are ergonomic, incredibly lightweight, and cut overall costs by more than half.

The bottom line:

The evolution of 3D printing in the automotive sphere is causing a disruption in its own right. Whereas the auto industry was once married to centralized factories and global supply chains, today anyone with a 3D printer and an Internet connection can print and install their own spare car parts, effectively shattering the industry’s reliance on dealerships and authorized mechanics. This development is slowly creating  a brand new auto industry based entirely on emerging technology.

Old world manufacturing is never going to survive in today’s new digital world. The automotive companies that stay in the fast lane will be those that adopt the most cutting edge technologies – including generative and additive design, cognitive AI and robotics – before they are left behind in the dust of the digital economy. The end result will be cars that are faster, smarter, lighter and stronger, and, most importantly for consumers and manufacturers, cost effective to produce and own. They will look better, they will be more energy efficient, and they will have a much smaller environmental imprint.

Are you ready? Get in and buckle up.

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