3D Printing Could Change the Automotive Industry As We Know It

January 18, 2017

In the past five years, rapid advances in technology have introduced the world to 3D printers that can produce life-size, fully functional vehicles – and it could change the automotive industry as we know it.

From vehicle design to manufacturing, to car dealerships – 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, seeks to innovate just about every stage of the automotive life-cycle. Understanding this technology’s potential is critical to staying relevant in the industry. To help, here is an overview of 3D printing’s impact on various areas of the automotive industry.

3D Printing’s influence on automotive manufacturing and competition

When it comes to design flexibility, 3D printing offers endless possibilities. The technology opens doors for lighter and safer vehicles, shorter production times and lower costs. Currently, additive manufacturing is mostly used by automotive companies for rapid prototyping. But the ultimate goal is to transform production and revolutionize traditional manufacturing and supply chain processes.

Local Motors is one of the first products of additive manufacturing – generating 75% of their car parts through 3D printing. The emerging automaker plans to open “micro-factories” across the United States that produce 3D-printed vehicles on a per-order basis. If it takes off, this one-stop-shop for automotive manufacturing and sales could prove revolutionary.

Additive manufacturing also helps the planet; as automotive companies use recycled material to build 3D-printed vehicles. This makes their carbon footprint extremely tiny and cost-effective – as a much smaller amount of electricity is required compared to traditional manufacturing. Additionally, automakers no longer have to waste resources building multiple prototype designs. Instead, they can create the perfect model on a computer, and 3D print the final version mistake-free.

As evidenced by the arrival of companies like Local Motors, the success of 3D printing could present some interesting competition for traditional automakers, however. The otherwise strong barrier to entry in the industry will be increasingly weakened as the technology becomes less expensive, and allows new automakers/OEMs to produce quality vehicles and parts cheaply and efficiently.

Modernizing dealership sales and processes with 3D Printing

Evolving consumer preferences since the turn of the century have brought about a strong desire for customization. Personalization and uniqueness are now core tenants of the modern mind. Cars have always been able to be customized – with dealerships giving people the ability to add features and choose colors. But 3D printing takes car buying to the next level, with the potential for hyper-personalization of consumer vehicles.

Picture a world where someone can walk into a car dealership, talk through what their ideal vehicle would look like with a representative, watch as that design comes to life on a CAD program and witness it being manufactured on the spot by a massive, in-house 3D printer. At the rate of this technology’s advancement, it’s only a matter of time before that option becomes the norm.

On the service side, WardsAuto writes that the installation of 3D printers at dealerships will make up to 30% of replacement parts printable on-site. If your dealership has a wholesale operation that stores thousands of parts, it wouldn’t just be advantageous to be able to 3D print them – it would be revolutionary from customer service and inventory management perspectives.

Currently, 3D printers are expensive compared to current options. But as the materials get cheaper and the technology gets faster (and it could happen quicker than you think), everyone will be trying to get their foot in the door as quickly as possible.

What dealers can do now, according to WardsAuto, is stay on top of this trend and get ready to jump as soon as the moment presents itself. As the article states, “you don’t want to get caught by surprise when an aftermarket competitor comes out with an offering that allows the printing of parts at the dealer or in a particular market.”