Custom Cars for Everyone with 3D Printing?

Why mass-scale personalization of cars is not right around the corner

Ultimately, as humans, we are all individuals and how we demonstrate this, through our appearance and behavior, is what characterizes our personality. This often extends to our immediate environment in terms of our possessions and how we decorate our homes and office workspaces. Fashion also plays its part, and how readily and how extravagantly we follow its ever-changing trends further indicates whether our sense of style is outrageous or more conservative.

Figure 1: 3D printing holds the possibility that, starting from a stock vehicle chassis and body, consumers can add features tied to their individual preferences. (Courtesy Mouser Electronics)

Figure 1: 3D printing holds the possibility that, starting from a stock vehicle chassis and body, consumers can add features tied to their individual preferences. (Courtesy Mouser Electronics)

Alongside personal styling, the gadgets we surround ourselves with and how we present our homes, one thing that probably says a lot about most of us is our car. Of course, for many, this is a very practical choice, influenced by considerations such as its capacity to carry people, pets and other loads, and running costs. For others, performance and style are key, which in the extreme, are often little more than an ostentatious display of wealth.

However, even the majority of “sensible and practical” car owners like to reflect some of their personality in their choice of vehicle, even if that is limited to the basics of make, model and color. This is not surprising when you consider that a 2016 report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found American drivers spend an average of more than 17,600 minutes behind the wheel each year. Unlike the early days of the automobile, when choices were limited and Henry Ford famously said words to the effect, “You can have any color as long as it is black,” the range of model, trim and styling choices from manufacturers today is almost bewildering. Even so, while the permutations possible may make it unlikely that you’ll see another car on the road that is exactly like yours, the level of personalization possible doesn’t amount to true customization.

This is not to say that everyone wants to own what we commonly refer to as a “custom car,” which usually evokes ideas of souped-up performance, extravagant styling and flamboyant color schemes. Rather, we might like the opportunity to impart something that’s a little original in the design or appearance of our car, something no one else will have. Wishful thinking or not? With the advent of 3D printers, this is entirely possible.

The Bounds of Possibility

From a theoretical standpoint, producing an entire car using 3D printing technology should be possible. However, the scenario of a customer visiting a dealership, specifying what they want and having that vehicle built to order to drive away is perhaps a little fanciful, at least in the immediately foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, all the elements are there, certainly for producing most of the parts using 3D printers. Today’s cars comprise some 20,000 components of all shapes and sizes, made from a variety of different materials. Printing these simultaneously with a single machine to produce a car in one go is simply not possible, even ignoring the complexities of some of the electronic components that require very specialized manufacturing processes.

Figure 2: Will 3D printing prove the means for vehicles to reflect their owners’ personalities? (courtesy Mouser Electronics)

Figure 2: Will 3D printing prove the means for vehicles to reflect their owners’ personalities? (courtesy Mouser Electronics)

Then there are the economies of scale to consider. Present day automotive assembly lines represent the evolution from having cars built one-at-a-time by teams of people to a situation where vehicles are built up step-by-step as they progress through the factory, with perhaps a hundred being worked on simultaneously, and then mostly by robotic machines dedicated to efficiently implementing a single function. Even allowing for the benefits of automation and robotics, reversing this manufacturing strategy would most likely also negate the cost benefits of current mass-production processes.

This is not to say that 3D-printed cars are just a pipe dream. Indeed, companies like Mouser’s partner, Local Motors, are demonstrating what is possible, particularly with a focus on autonomous vehicles. Despite such potential, the view of most industry experts is that the mass-scale personalization of cars is unlikely within even the next 100 years. Not only no infrastructure in place to support this, but also a host of design constraints would need to be addressed, not least meeting mandatory safety regulations. Instead, we have to look elsewhere for the benefits 3D printing can offer this industry.

Overnight Change? Not So Much

Automotive design and the large-scale manufacture of affordable cars using the production line approach has been refined not just over decades but now for more than a century. Consequently, we shouldn’t expect 3D printing to change things overnight, even allowing for the rapid evolution of that technology. So, while today it is possible to print a bare-bones mechanical car, it is important to understand the design requirements and the implications of material choices.

Regardless of how the material is formed to make a particular component, what is more important is how that component is designed to meet the required function. This is where the common expert refrain is that “design should be left to designers” because of the risk that, regardless of whether they know what they want, the majority of customers are incapable of designing something that will function correctly, let alone safely.

Mechanical elements need to perform in some different ways. They need to provide strength and rigidity while at the same time being lightweight and durable. The effects these components have on a vehicle’s handling, or its aerodynamic performance is not something even the maker generation of designer is equipped to deal with. Then there are the highly important considerations of safety and reliability, with many aspects of safety being highly regulated and often subject to rigorous testing. And of course, affordability is also essential.

Currently, the materials 3D printers do best are plastic and metals. Even so, the cost of producing something like a plastic bumper or a steel body panel would not only require a large printer but is unlikely to be cost-effective compared to the respective processes of using injection molding equipment or sheet metal presses. By contrast, 3D printers may provide the means to take advantage of a material like aluminum, which is difficult to work with using current production technologies but is attractive for making lightweight aluminum frames.

Squaring the Circle

Returning to the economics of custom versus mass production, one of the problems created by the extensive choice of options offered by vehicle manufacturers today is that of inventory. While producing in bulk typically reduces cost, to avoid the impact of lengthy component lead-times adding to the long waits customers already face when ordering a car that’s not a stock model, it is inevitably necessary to build ahead and hold inventory based on expected demand for these options.

And the wider the choice, the worse this problem becomes, which is where 3D printing may rebalance the cost equation in this consumer choice dilemma. Holding inventory entails a cost that is multiplied by the array of options available. For example, let’s consider just a few items of body detailing, such as a radiator grille, door trim, mirror cover and trunk sill protector. If each of these is offered in black, chrome and perhaps 2 or 3 other finishes to complement the vehicle’s body color, that already amounts to some 20 component variants. Under these circumstances, on demand printing may prove more cost effective.

Then we come to more creative options, which might potentially include customized body panels. There is an argument that vehicle manufacturers should start with a stock vehicle chassis and body to which customers can add features and styling details, with CAD software to ensure everything functions correctly—even through to running virtual wind tunnel and performance testing.

Whether this is where the future of the automobile industry lies remains to be seen. Undoubtedly manufacturers will embrace 3D printing technology where it offers obvious benefits, in much the same way as the aerospace industry has when it comes to designing parts that are lighter weight or achieve some key performance breakthrough. 3D printing could become economically viable with regard to addressing vehicle option proliferation, but its adoption for further enhanced customization will be another matter, which in part will reflect competitive pressures within the industry but equally could remain the preserve of after-market or specialist suppliers.

Photo-RobertHuntleyRobert Huntley is an HND-qualified engineer and technical writing specialist. Drawing on his background in telecommunications, navigation systems, and embedded applications engineering, he writes on a variety of technical and practical topics on behalf of Mouser Electronics.

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