The days of the iconic car assembly line seems to be numbered. 3D printing technology will one day scale up for mass production of full-size automotive components and body panels using molten polymers, allowing manufacturers to build cars to microscopic exacting standards without the space currently required for assembly line manufacturing. The transition should result in lighter, better built, easier to construct, and more affordable vehicles. Cars will also probably look nothing like the vehicles on the road today once 3D printing becomes the standard.
EDAG, an automotive industry engineering and production consultant, revealed the biomorphic Genesis concept vehicle in March at the Geneva Motor Show. The Genesis represents a design and engineering exploration, an example of the possibilities opened up by 3D printers. The extremely intricate form inspired by the sea turtle is currently out of the reach of traditional manufacturing.
Additive 3D printing works in sharp contrast to the automotive industry’s current process of cutting, punching, molding, and tooling raw materials for automotive panels and parts. Instead, 3D printers deposit ABS plastic one particle at a time at the microscopic level to build shapes in three dimensions, a process so precise, moving parts can be assembled together at once without separate tooling or molds. 3D printers for car manufacturing thus offers the additional benefit of decreased production waste, and in time should lower costs for both manufacturers and customers.
EDAG turned to Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) as a solution for the Genesis concept, a space efficient manufacturing process using thermoplastic carbon fiber material application applied by computer controlled robots, resulting in complex structures built layer by layer that exhibit high strength and flexibility, with reduced overall weight, and a shape very different from what we normally equate with an automobile.
At last week’s New York International Auto Show, Toyota showcased their FT-1 concept super car replicated in detailed miniature scale using the MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer. Imagine the same manufacturing process scaled up to full sized vehicle size and the concept of an auto assembly lines changes from a linear conveyer to a static self-contained manufacturing area. It’s a safe bet efficiency-obsessed Toyota is investing heavily in 3D printing R&D for a future fleet of next generation fuel efficient vehicles.
But to get a better idea of what the cars of tomorrow will look like today, one should consider Jim Kor’s vision of the compact urban vehicle, the Urbee 2, a lightweight 3-wheeler designed to shuttle two passengers around cities. Using the same ABS plastic printing process as proposed by EDAG’s Genesis concept, the Urbee 2′s 3D printed Fused Deposition Modeling constructed chassis is so aerodynamic, the company is nearing 290 miles per U.S. gallon fuel efficiency (highway) during real world testing.
Even today, the 3D printing process is so precise and automated, the Urbee 2 is manufactured overnight during unattended “lights out” production (each part can take anywhere from several hours to several days to “print out”).
Other automotive start-ups like Local Motors are turning to crowdsourced design to bring 3D printed vehicles to market with faster turn around and more innovative solutions, liberating automotive design from many of its current physical and conceptual boundaries.
In time, printing out a car – or nearly any other object of any size, even houses – may be as simple as pressing the “print” button from a computer.