Ready or not, 3D printing has arrived and you will be the beneficiary of this emerging technology sooner than later. 3D printing has migrated from an expensive hobby for the rich to an affordable necessity for a range of applications. Ongoing product development has resulted in lower cost, a wider range of available materials, extensive libraries of 3D designs and an ever increasing search for practical applications.
The medical profession has embraced 3D printing for replacement body parts, organs, prosthetics, casts, braces and for operating room training. Automobile manufacturers have implemented 3D printing into many phases of the design, engineering, testing and manufacturing of our new cars and trucks. According to its website, Ford uses 3D printers to produce prototype parts, “shaving months off the development time for individual components used in all of its vehicles, such as cylinder heads, intake manifolds and air vents.” Ford says that with 3D printers, it can now create a complicated prototype engine part in four days at a cost of $3,000 as compared to the pre-3D printer four-month completion time and a $500,000 price tag. “For the customer, this means better quality products that also can be weight-optimized to help improve fuel efficiency,” Paul Susalla, Ford section supervisor of rapid manufacturing, said in a press statement.
Engineers at Opel, a General Motors subsidiary, are said to be using 3D printers to create tools used in the company's assembly process. Meanwhile, GM is also using 3D technology to “dissect” its competition, using light scanners to capture exact 3D images of torn-down Mercedes and other vehicles. Those scans are then used to reverse-engineer computer models of those cars that can be used in comparisons of similar GM models.
"3-D scanning is a time-efficient and cost-effective way of keeping up with rapid advancements being made all over the industry," said Larry Pecar, senior supervisor, GM Competitive Benchmarking. "The technology also allows us to gain a better understanding of the reasons for other automakers' recalls so that we are better able to avoid making the same mistakes."
Very soon, you may be able to order a “coachbuilt” car from your dealer. Years ago, the wealthy ordered a Duesenberg and then specified one of about thirty custom coach builders to supply the body of choice. In the near future, you could select a rolling chassis (probably an all-electric or hybrid) and have a body of your design or liking produced by a 3D printer.
This is not a pipedream. As you read this, Oak Ridge National Labs is finalizing their 3D printing technology to create a car-size object (like a car body) and the winner of the 3D Printed Car Design Challenge will form the basis of a car that will be printed out live and assembled from scratch at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago later this month.