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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Making Car Parts with a 3-D Printer

A close friend of mine is a car aficionado. He recently brought to my attention an article in the March issue of Motor Trend magazine that describes advances in 3-D printed car parts. I’ll have to admit that I was skeptical, as I was in the 1970s when I took a ride on my step-brother’s plastic motorcycle. But I was wrong then (it was a good bike), and in doing some reading now on 3-D printed car parts, I’ve become intrigued by the benefits.

The New Technology

The article my friend sent me was a column by Frank Markus entitled “3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars” (Motor Trend, March 2017).

The article addresses the work of Kevin Czinger, who researched the environmental impact of gas and hybrid automobiles due to his concern for the planet. He found that manufacturing the vehicles and the fuel accounted for more than 75 percent of the vehicle’s environmental impact (according to Argonne National Lab’s life cycle GREET model data). So he began to look for alternatives to metal stamping and welding car parts.

Czinger therefore founded Divergent 3D in Gardena, California, where he uses “off-the-shelf carbon-fiber tubing and sheet goods,” along with 3-D custom printing, to create an auto chassis that is cheaper to manufacture and significantly lighter in weight than a traditionally produced product. It will “accommodate any type of body, powertrain, and feature content” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”).

According to the article, Czinger’s process for a “prototype Blade uses 69 nodes, each of which are 3-D printed by laser sintering powdered aluminum to connect an intricate web of carbon-fiber tubes and honeycomb-aluminum or carbon-fiber sheer paneling—all off-the-shelf commodity parts” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”).

(As a point of interest, laser sintering is one of a number of processes, including direct metal laser sintering, selective laser sintering, and electron beam additive manufacturing, that use a laser or electron beam to melt and fuse powdered metal or wire into a usable—and stable—3-D form, building up the substance layer by layer from a 3-D computer aided design model.)

Frank Markus’ article then notes the bottom line: a “drastic drop in manufacturing cost and complexity.” And, by inference, if there’s a drop in the complexity of manufacturing, there will be a lessened effect on the environment.

The Effects of the New Technology

  1. As I read the article, I am reminded of the LEGO plastic building toy I had in the ‘60s that let children build practically anything with a limited number of interlocking plastic parts. What Czinger seems to be doing is identifying those parts that need to be unique, producing these via 3-D additive manufacturing, and then using these custom-built car parts along with standard (albeit simpler and lighter than usual) parts to complete the car chassis building process. Simpler equals cheaper and less damaging to the environment.
  2. If the chassis of the car is strong but much lighter than usual, it seems that fuel efficiency will increase. For performance cars (like those in Motor Trend magazine), this will equate to faster speeds. However, it will also equate to a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency. Less fuel, as Czinger found in his initial research, will combine with less complex manufacturing to reduce the impact of a vehicle on the environment.
  3. Czinger’s Divergent 3D process apparently sidesteps the need for painting car parts. Markus’ article notes that the “unstressed composite body panels get molded in color or wrapped” (“3-D Classes: Showing the Industry a New Way to Design and Build Cars”). Eliminating a painting step in car production will dramatically reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs), further lessening the environmental impact of the manufacturing process.
  4. From the point of view of manufacturing in general (as opposed to the auto industry in particular), combining digitally produced unique parts with off-the-shelf commodity parts will streamline both research and development and the final production of vehicles. More specifically, a prototype can be made in-house quickly, and then changed any number of times in response to testing. In contrast, without 3-D manufacturing, the parts for the prototype would need to be sent out for injection molding, which would be a subcontracted process taking a lot of time and money. In short, additive manufacturing would make vehicle design more “nimble” and therefore quicker, cheaper, and more easily adjusted in response to testing.
  5. Applying 3-D custom printing technology to car production would simplify the manufacturing process, minimize inventory, and make the “assembly-line” paradigm obsolete. For instance, the traditional approach has been to rely on a limited number of manufacturing plants to produce all car parts. These parts are manufactured on an assembly line in bulk, and them shipped out and kept in inventory for their final use. (For the most part this is because it is cheaper to stamp out or injection mold a huge number of car parts at one time and then store them.) In contrast, using 3-D additive manufacturing, a car parts manufacturer can produce only those specific parts needed at the time, and presumably eliminate or dramatically reduce inventory as well as waste.
  6. It is much less expensive to install 3-D custom printing equipment than to build production facilities for metal stamping and injection molding. Another way to phrase this is to say that the entry cost for car parts manufacturers is lower if they use 3-D additive manufacturing than if they need to equip a traditional manufacturing plant with tool and die machinery. Presumably, this can lead to the growth of a multitude of small businesses across the country producing car parts on an as-needed basis. Instead of having a “hub” system, with all components being sent out from a central manufacturer, the manufacturing would be based on a “cell” system, with the nearest cell manufacturing the car parts as needed.
  7. This implies a paradigm shift from valuing the car parts themselves to valuing the digital information from which the car parts can be digitally printed. The car parts themselves would become a commodity, but the proprietary intellectual value of the digital manufacturing information would rise dramatically. Other than the decentralization of manufacturing, I think this may be one of the more far-reaching effects of 3-D custom printing, not only for the car industry but for any number of other industries as well.

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