The car from the replicator
“A burger with fries and salad, please” – as any keen Star Trek fan knows, technology for replicating matter is already quite advanced in the 24th century. The replicator on the Enterprise not only provided freshly prepared food, but also entire machines and body parts – and even had a voice interface for ordering.
3D printing as an innovation driver
The car industry hasn’t quite got to that point yet – but not a week goes by without news being published of new milestones in 3D printing or additive manufacturing. That puts it a few steps ahead of the “food providers” who have managed to bring us the coffee machine so far 😉
There is talk here and there of the technology being a “secret innovation driver.” Analysts from Allied Market Research believe it can contribute sales of USD 2.7bn by 2023, with annual growth rates of almost 20 percent. Perhaps not the richest treasure trove, but still quite impressive for a relatively new technology. As is the norm with printers, the greater part of the budgets allocated goes on ink and toner materials: Frost & Sullivan forecasts revenues of roughly USD 570m for the car industry in 2024. And annual growth of almost 18 percent is expected – unusually, analysts across the board seem to largely agree on this one.
New carmakers are popping up like mushrooms
3D printing is the social media of car making. Through social media, anyone can become an information disseminator; through 3D printing, it seems a new car maker is setting up in every second garage – without decades of brand development. Local Motors with its Olli and the Italian startup X Electrical Vehicle (XEV) are just two examples of electric cars that are largely produced by a replicator printer.
Even the big names are not flinching away from additive manufacturing: its use for prototypes, tools, and spare parts is already too widespread. Although it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing any Porsche or Lamborghini models rolling off the 3D printer in the next few years, printed parts are being included in the production of small series, at least: 3D printing is used for rear lights in the Bugatti Divo and in overhead consoles in the BMW i8. In fact, the list of examples is almost endless.
Agility: a key advantage
The advantages of this production method are a mirror image of those seen in digitization – for example, the speed at which components are manufactured on demand and made available on site. Not to mention the low costs through highly streamlined production, which doesn’t need a lot of conventional instruments and intermediate stages, or require post-processing. Plus a broad range of materials can be used, from plastic to metal. Another point in favor of printers is that the more complicated the workpiece, the bigger the advantages of using a printer over traditional production methods.
On the other hand, printer software, which we download ourselves free of charge from websites, is now becoming a direct production factor. Manufacturers are not shy of putting a high price tag on it. Rather like the high-end printers themselves. But let’s not forget: the technology is still in its infancy.
Additive manufacturing as a piece of the production puzzle
In the next five years, we will see performance increase at the same rate prices fall, purely due to the wide range of potential use scenarios including in sectors outside the car industry. Will we ever see a car come out of a replicator? Debatable. It might well be the stuff of Elon Musk’s dreams – but it is pretty much inevitable now that 3D printers will become a component of production lines. The same principle applies as ever: the right tool in the right place brings the biggest benefits.
Just imagine you’re in a workshop and hear someone say, “Just a minute, we’re printing the part right now. Have a coffee while you’re waiting!” instead of “Oh, can you come back tomorrow? We have to order the part in first…”