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February 20, 2014

3D Printing: Providing Cheaper Processes, Greater Innovation in the Automobile Industry

Professionals in the industry call it “additive manufacturing” or “additive layer manufacturing,” Iain Todd, director of Sheffield University's Mercury Centre in South Yorkshire, England, told TCT Magazine. But the rest of the world simply knows the process as 3D printing, the creation of objects using advanced computer technologies along with liquid resins or plastics. This ability to build objects microscopic layer by microscopic layer, one on top of the other, has applications all over the globe, but the most exciting of these may be in the automobile industry.

Streamlining Processes

The world’s jaw dropped with the 2010 introduction of the Urbee, a 3D-printed two-seater car with a hybrid engine and an incredibly lightweight frame. This frame, combined with its aerodynamic body style, enables the Urbee to get insane gas mileage: 200 mpg highway and 100 mpg city, according to Stratasys, a 3D modeling company. Even more impressive are the designs for its successor, the Urbee 2. The lightweight model will boast 50 percent 3D-printed parts, for a total length of 10 feet and weight of 1,200 pounds, according to a Popular Mechanics interview with designer Jim Kor.

Greening Technologies

Because 3D modeling fosters the development of lightweight frames and aerodynamic bodies, it also encourages innovation in green technologies. The Urbee 2, for instance, is slated to get 290 mpg, according to the Scientific American. 3D modeling also allows the building of very intricate parts all at once, reducing the number of components that make up a car from thousands to perhaps 40 or 50. Such streamlined construction also reduces the impact on the environment by minimizing industrial processes.

Maximizing Prototype Potential

A fascinating part about 3D printing is how easy it makes designing prototypes, because instead of building custom equipment to turn out each piece, a 3D printer can manufacture a wide range of objects easily. The only requirements? Designs that can be fed into a computer modeling system such as CAD to create the design file, raw materials and the printer itself. This gives companies such as BF Goodrich a leg up on the design process, allowing them to further perfect and test different tire styles and tread concepts.

Utilizing Better Materials

3D printing doesn’t restrict the appearance of printed parts. Stratasys (News - Alert), for instance, offers both thermoplastics and photopolymers as base materials, and is capable of manufacturing clear, rubberlike, opaque and colored parts, all stable and durable.

Perhaps best of all, 3D printing can be combined with other new technologies and innovative processes. For example, engineers can produce titanium powder directly from ore, instead of subjecting it to multiple expensive melting and rolling iterations. The resulting powder can then be used as a base material for 3D printing, adding a high-grade, extremely strong metal to the growing ingredients list for the future.

Dennis writes about the latest technology trends in design. He's Apple (News - Alert) obsessed, a tech writer, and former software engineer.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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