AMS Spring 2023

AMS Speaker Spotlight: A Niche Auto Market Tailor-Made for 3D Printing

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Pat Carey, Senior Vice President, Strategic Growth for Stratasys, will be participating in Additive Manufacturing Strategies 2022, Panel 1: AM and mass customization in automotive.

Interested in buying a brand-new DeLorean? How about a 1968 Mustang fastback fresh off the production line? If so, you won’t need a time machine – just access to a 3D printer. Thanks to recent legislation and pent-up demand, there are plenty of companies ready to sell you a “new” classic. And 3D printing is helping to bring this new automotive market to life.

Welcome to Low-Volume Auto Production

In 2021 the Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturer’s Act went into effect, eliminating some regulations that would be difficult or impossible for low-volume producers to meet. The legislation makes it easier for manufacturers to economically produce cars in small quantities – no more than 325 per year. A number of companies have announced their intention to develop and manufacture classic auto reproductions. As a result, vintage car fans will be able to buy brand new versions of many of their favorite classics from specialty manufacturers.

How 3D Printing Helps

Automotive development and manufacturing is an expensive proposition, particularly when you factor in the cost of re-tooling for new models. Legacy automakers have the advantage of economy of scale. Selling millions of cars each year mitigates the high capital investments needed to support production because the unit costs are spread over the total production quantity. The more units produced, the lower the cost.

But low-volume car manufacturers don’t enjoy this capability. To make the low-volume business model work, they have to rely on development, tooling and manufacturing methods that provide faster, less costly alternatives to conventional techniques. And that’s where 3D printing comes in.

Whether it’s product ideation, tooling or production of end-use parts, the agile nature of 3D printing sidesteps the higher cost and lead time associated with traditional manufacturing. For example, tooling for composite body panels can be printed using autoclave-capable thermoplastics in significantly less time than it takes to obtain metal tooling. If the panel shape needs to change, the tool’s CAD file is easily updated and another tool printed, usually within a day. That’s just one example. This same time- and cost-efficient principle applies to prototyping and low-volume or customized end-use parts.

A New Spin on Old Classics

Stratasys has partnered with two low-volume car manufacturers to prove out the belief that 3D printing can help. Kindig-It Design, a long time Stratasys partner, has highlighted 3D printing in car customization for MotorTrend TV’s Bitchin Rides since 2015. Another is Radford Motors, a start-up reincarnation of the former British coachbuilder consisting of luxury car designer Mark Stubbs, master car builder and TV host Ant Anstead, and Jenson Button, former F1 racing world champion.

Nowhere is the theory that 3D printing can help more evident than with the Kindig CF1. This ’53 Corvette-inspired production vehicle from Kindig-It Design uses 3D printing in multiple ways to reduce cost and compress the production cycle.

For instance, the CF1’s aluminum windshield frame is sand cast using a 3D printed FDM pattern. Headlight lenses are shaped with FDM thermoform tooling. Composite door shells and small body panels are made with 3D printed lay-up molds and 3D printed production parts include the taillight components, headlight housings and the glove compartment insert.

A similar story is taking shape with Radford Motors’ recently introduced Radford Type 62-2. The car is based on the 1960s Lotus 62 racer. The rebirth of Radford Motors and the design and development of their first car will be documented on the discovery+ show Radford Returns. Stratasys has been working closely with Radford at every stage of the 62-2’s design and development. Each car leverages 3D printing in over 500 parts, starting with design for additive manufacturing principles, progressing through prototype development, tooling and many production parts.

A Lesson for Legacy Automakers

3D printing is one of the tools enabling low-volume automakers to not only create a viable business but to provide the kind of customization today’s automobile buyers expect. The same benefits are there for legacy carmakers. The auto industry was quick to adopt 3D printing for prototyping, in fact one of the Big 3 auto makers in the U.S. was one of Stratasys’ first customers 30 years ago. Now we are starting to see the rapid adoption of 3D printed tooling across the industry and have seen some OEMs like BMW offer personalization, giving customers the freedom to mix and match various options. As this trend grows, auto manufacturers will need new tools to make customization and personalization feasible, and with real world examples of how 3D printing can help low-volume car producers across new applications, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll see it adopted by the legacy OEMs very quickly.

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