To many, the idea of a 3D printed car is something of a science-fiction concept. However, as 3D printing automotive manufacturing industries grow, so do the possibilities of 3D printed car parts and accessories.
From restoring famous and classic cars to repairing and building modern roadsters, 3D printing car parts are evolving the age-old motor industry in a cheaper, faster, and more exciting direction.
- This article focuses on car parts. We also have a ranking of the most exciting 3D printed cars.
The History of 3D Printed Car Parts
The use of 3D printing in the construction of car parts and their prototypes has been in practice from as far back as 1986, when the Ford Motor Company purchased 3D Systems’ third ever SLA 3D printer, the SLA-3.
They used the printer to create prototypes to test the form and fit of their parts, but at the time they were non-functioning and created mainly as demonstrative pieces. This practice has since been adopted by many automotive companies as a cheap and effective means of testing car accessories and other components such as frames and panels.
In recent years, companies have used 3D printing to build commercial cars and professional racing vehicles due to significant cost and time reductions compared to traditional machining. 3D printing working parts has been shown to save days, if not weeks – while costing only a fraction of what traditional techniques cost – with some industrial 3D printers able to build large-scale parts for repair in as little as 4 hours.
Prototyping and pre-manufacturing tests are important for any engineering industry, with 3D printing now widely used by many automotive companies to iterate and test the effectiveness of various components.
As well as making this process faster and cheaper, it also ensures that failed or defective part designs result in less drastic losses, as the creation and testing of these 3D printed parts do not cost as much time, money, or company resources to create and test, compared with full manufacturing runs. Any form or functional defects can be edited instantly in 3D modeling software before the next iteration is 3D printed to iterate far faster.
Additionally, with the use of flame-retardant materials such as Polyamide 6, 3D printed components comfortably pass flammability requirements and all required safety standards.
3D Printed Car Parts in Classic Car Restoration
These technological advances also bring good news for owners of classic and antique cars. 3D printers can create reliable car parts to replace rare and outdated parts on classic cars from a 3D model. This saves repair and maintenance costs of older cars whose parts may be very expensive or difficult to find.
In some cases, many antique cars use outdated parts that are no longer in circulation – and are therefore impossible to find. A car owner anywhere in the world can use a 3D scanner to scan an existing part from their car, and send the file across the planet to an owner who needs the part. Using a 3D printer, the missing car part can be printed and reinstalled in the car, which would have otherwise been impossible to locate.
Here are a few examples of 3D printed car parts being used to restore classic cars:
Elvis’ BMW restored using 3D printed car parts
Elvis Presley’s prized BMW 507 was notably restored using 3D printed parts as the car parts needed for a standard restoration were no longer available. Originally released in 1957, the car’s age meant that many of its parts were impossible to locate, so BMW turned to 3D printing to resurrect the King of Rock’s ride.
After being bounced from auction to auction, and a brief stint in the BMW museum in Munich, the racer-turned-roadster was eventually left to gather dust on a farm in Alabama. In 2014, BMW bought back the car from a Jack Castor – who had been unaware of the car’s history – and shipped it to Germany to begin restoration.
The restoration took two years, and in 2016 BMW revealed the reborn relic at the Frankfurt Motor Show, restored partially with 3D printed parts including window rollers, door handles and windshield wipers which were 3D scanned from similar models to recreate its appearance from back when Elvis owned it.
VW restoring their classic minivan with 3D printed car parts
In 2019, Volkswagen looked to 3D printing to remake their iconic 1962 microbus. The sixties icon was re-imagined as an electric vehicle using 3D printed wheels and mirrors. The lightweight nature of the parts added to the microbus’ efficiency, and 3D printing’s versatility meant creating custom shapes for both interior and exterior fixtures to resemble tree roots in bright orange was no problem, adding to the vehicle’s status as a symbol of ‘hippie’ culture.
The aim was to recreate the classic minibus using modern techniques that would blend seamlessly with the vintage aesthetics. 3D printing was chosen to ensure the artistic style and round structure would be consistent with the iconic exterior.
To do this, Volkswagen used a clear resin coated with an electroplated nickel finish to resemble the sheen and smooth shapes that emulate the sixties-era idea of a ‘futuristic’ look. The hubcaps were made using the same bright orange color, while the Volkswagen logo was a contrasting, eye-catching silver.
Jaguar, Bentley & Bugatti restorations
Jaguar have also used 3D printing technology to restore the rare XK120 SE, which they revealed in 2017. The full body restoration used 3D printed models to replace various parts and fixtures, including the front and rear lights as well as the back window.
In 2019, Bentley announced the recreation of their famous 1929 Blowers, a staple of early 20th century European racetracks, by disassembling and scanning the original models for 3D printing to stay as close to the initial designs as possible. They aim to have 12 showcase-ready models in as little as two years.
In the same year, Bugatti celebrated their 110th anniversary by recreating their 1926 Bugatti Baby, a tiny race car designed for the Bugatti founder’s son. This Bugatti Baby II is slightly larger than the original and uses mostly 3D printed parts. Bugatti plan to release 500 units as an homage to the original limited line.
These restorations are often labors of love for engineers, and while some cars are restored for commercial purposes, many are done as demonstrative pieces to meld the famous historical roadsters with modern technology, proving the industry hasn’t forgotten its routes.
Using Additive Manufacturing Car Parts in Customization
As well as maintenance, cars can be uniquely customized without spending the money typically required for DIY or professional builds.
Car restorers Ringbrothers have been creating 3D printed car parts customized to each of their customer’s exact needs. These customizations include practical 3D printed fixtures such as hub caps and air vents, to unique aesthetic changes like seats and steering wheels.
Because traditional customization methods create parts unique to the customer, they are generally made to order, lengthening production times as most parts need to be made from scratch, increasing costs for both manufacturer and consumer.
3D printing these car parts saves time and money for both company and consumer, and the 3D CAD file can be previewed and confirmed by the customer prior to manufacture to ensure they get exactly what they want.
Benefits of 3D printing car parts
Lighter, cheaper & better for the environment: Not only are 3D printed car parts faster and cheaper to produce, but they are also more environmentally friendly. Because of the plastics used in 3D printed parts, they are lighter than their all-metal counterparts, which in turn lowers fuel and energy consumption.
Most materials and plastic filaments used in 3D printing are easily recyclable, with key long-term environmental benefits of 3D printing car parts at the end of the vehicle’s life cycle. Car companies are under pressure to reduce their carbon footprint by developing greener vehicles and embracing electric and hybrid engines, with 3D printing integral to their plans.
Producible on demand: Not only do 3D printed parts make vehicles more fuel-efficient, they also can also be produced on demand. Gone are the days where overproduction meant overstocked parts would go to waste.
While scrapping is an option, companies are often reluctant to let go of parts they can sell later, and the process of repurposing these parts can be damaging to the environment. Though plastic parts do not biodegrade easily, they are not vulnerable to rust damage that can destroy metal over time — so even old and outdated 3D printed parts can be recycled relatively easily.
Though not recyclable by usual curb-side measures, reducing plastic waste and lowering each car’s carbon footprint makes for considerable environmental improvements.
Conclusion: The Future of 3D printed Car Parts
The possibilities of 3D printing car parts are limitless. From its early days in rapid prototyping to the fully functioning parts of today, motor companies worldwide are using 3D printing in car parts to benefit themselves, their customers, and the environment.
Automotive manufacturers are always looking to be on the cutting edge of engineering, creating otherwise unobtainable parts and more fuel-efficient cars. 3D printed car parts not only offer clear financial benefits, but several car companies have used the technology to create wild and futuristic remakes of classic cars that demonstrate 3D printing’s powerful customization possibilities.
Thanks to 3D printed parts, restorations no longer need to be a long and painful process, and early designs and famous historical models can be brought back for newer generations of enthusiasts to appreciate firsthand.
For car enthusiasts as well as casual car owners, cheap and easy customization is an incredibly attractive concept, with unmatched accuracy and customization for their cars a way to showcase their personality to the world.
With 3D printing, the idea of an individual’s ‘dream car’ may not be only at the whims of a manufacturer – but instead made to a consumer’s specifications with a 3D model. The savings made through the 3D printing process will also pass to the customer, making cars using these parts more affordable as well as more efficient, and bringing cars we can all be proud to drive into the mainstream market.