Can 3D Printing Help the Auto Industry Usher in a New Era for Coachbuilding?


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The car industry is becoming excited about 3D printing, with players rushing to acquire systems. Mass customization cases, such as with Mini, are being piloted to get to grips with the technology. Car parts are being designed and tested, while printers are arriving on more and more shop floors. Some hypercars now sport 3D printed parts and they’re appearing on more ordinary vehicles, as well. What you may not know is that, for years, one-off supercars have had many 3D printed parts. These vehicles where a wealthy individual goes to Pininfarina, for example, and then has a unique Ferrari made. These one-offs can cost many millions and are works of art. They’re also a rare example of coachbuilding. 

Ferrari Monza SP1 Rutger van der Laar

In the early days of the automobile, coachbuilding was the norm. Coachbuilders created the entire body of the car, including the interior on top of the rolling chassis. The rolling chassis—which is made up of the engine, drivetrain, chassis and wheels—was then married to the coach portion of the car. Often, these coachbuilding companies had started with carriages and were then able to transfer their wood and metalworking skills to the car industry. Coachbuilders made a lot by hand forming metal and wood individually. So, separate details or designs for single customers were possible, as were more serially-produced models.

The symbiosis of the coachbuilder and the automobile manufacturer ended in the 1960s, with the popularization of the unibody chassis. Some names live on in the models of cars such as the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia or through units of car companies, such as Bentley’s Mulliner. Some firms, including Belgium’s Van Hool, are large manufacturers of busses, where a similar coachbuilding norm still subsists. 

A Lotus rolling chassis without wheels Brian Snelson

But, at a time of great change there is also opportunity for innovation. We often see flocks of innovative ideas come to fruition simultaneously and enabling each other (e.g., the production line, combustion engine, suburbs, vulcanized rubber and the motorway service station). The current upheaval in the car industry is that of the electric car. This will change how vehicles are made and may be a great benefit to our planet, as well.

But, if you look at the chassis of electric cars, it looks an awful lot like that of the rolling chassis of yesteryear. The batteries, electronics, motors—they’re all flat on the bottom of the car. This, in turn, means that the rest is later built on top. So, if this to be the general design paradigm for many electric cars, we could return to coachbuilding, right? 

Early Tesla Roadster Chassis. Image courtesy of Tom Donohue 

Many people want more creative, customized products. The car is already a mass-customized item made with millions of exemplars, perhaps in some cases; no two could be identical. So, why not let others manufacture the body, and make these bodies unique? Why don’t Bosch or Panasonic sell rolling electric chassis to partners so that, in turn, these partners can make cars on top of them?

Molds for body parts could be 3D printed using voxeljet, any of the concrete 3D printing companies, LSAM from Thermwood, or similar systems. Standard components would then become relatively inexpensive. You could even make low volume stamping dies with 3D printing. Unique parts will be 3D printed in SLA or large-scale FDM and cast. Other parts could be printed directly by ExOne, MX3D, or another relatively inexpensive technology. Some parts could be printed directly through polymers. All in all, you could get pretty far toward a one-off coachbuild with 3D printing.   

Tesla S Chassis. Image courtesy of John Tiffin

Users can design their own car bodies and have unique interior layouts, as well. Whatever your heart desires could become your next automobile. You could have quirks and completely off-the-wall body shapes that go way beyond what the aftermarket does now. Micro car brands could cater to small groups of people or bring car manufacturing to countries that have had no access to it yet. Designers could commission cars of any and all designs quite inexpensively. Cars could become art again. 

Bugatti Grand Raid body built by Gangloff R Boed.

Now, naysayers will probably have some questions about things like crash testing. Liability and just general safety could be tricky, I’ll admit. But, in some case and somehow, it will be possible to do this in a limited manner. For example, for the next UPS van it will be easier for UPS to design exactly the vehicle it wants with all of the features it wants. Maybe not everyone could do something like this, but it does open up the car market to newer entrants and ways of competing. 

By 3D printing components in this case, we’d be enabling a transition, by a part of the industry, to a new way of making automobiles. It is exactly through these innovations inside industries that we could play a disruptive role across many an industry. 

The feature image is another Gangloff Bugatti, courtesy of Rex Grey

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