Enabling a Continuously Evolving Car Through 3D Printing

Movimento Blog

In a modern twist on the Riddle of the Sphinx, it could be argued that people today need sensible cars in the morning, safe ones in the afternoon, and fun ones at night. In other words, we have different needs at different times in our lives — the hatchback for a high school job, the family vehicle when kids come along, and maybe a sports car once they are out of the house. This has, traditionally, meant that consumers use many different vehicles over the course of their lives. But now things are changing with 3D printing.

3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is already jumping from niche industry to ubiquity. As the materials used in the process grow stronger and as printing techniques improve, the technology is beginning to a have major impact on the automotive industry.

3D printing could change the physical nature of the car. Over-The-Air (OTA) software updates can alter how hardware works, thus altering a car’s performance. 3D printing does the same for the external car body, creating an adjustable car that can become something completely new. Developments with OTA software updates and 3D printing together suggest a whole new model of car ownership, one in which customers have licensing agreements with OEMs and can change their vehicles as needs dictate. While this represents a radical shift, it is one in which OEMs could thrive.

3D Printing and Cars: The Future is Now

3D printing is the next big thing. Not in the sense of market growth — although the industry did grow 25.9% last year, with the number of printers shipped, nearly doubling 2015 totals — in terms of what it can accomplish. 3D printing was originally limited to small parts, but the technology has begun to take on larger projects, including houses.

One of the reasons that 3D printing has proved to be so beneficial for smaller parts is strength, and this holds true for larger ones as well. A printing technique, known as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), can create sturdy materials of nearly any size, given the right kind of printer (and the right slicer software). This means that fully working cars can now be printed instead of assembled.

This is not just a theory – a Chinese company, Sanya Sihai, has already begun printing electric cars. Their model only costs $1,770, whereas the average price of manufacturing an automobile in the US is closer to $20,000-$25,000. The downside though is that its maximum speed is only 25MPH and it seats only two persons — not what most American buyers are looking for.

The current 3D industry rests in the creative but limited hands of hobbyists and entrepreneurs. But what does that mean for OEMs? How can we scale the technology to make it profitable?

The Costs of Building a Car

Every vehicle’s make and model has different production costs, of course, but there are similar percentages across the industry:

  • 10-15% of the total production budget is accounted for labor costs. 3D printing would still require labor, especially technicians, programmers, and engineers, but printers would be doing most of the heavy lifting, reducing labor costs.
  • 20-30% of the total production budget is accounted for material costs. This area represents huge cost savings. Of the $1,770 it cost Sanya Sihai to build its electric car, only $800 of that accounted for printer filament.
  • 50-60% of the total production budget is accounted for overhead costs. Less reliance on supply chains and lower logistical overhead would mean cutting back costs in this area as well.

Raw materials, in particular, are very expensive for automotive companies, with some estimating costs to run as high as 47% of a car’s total production budget. 22% of costs also depend on steel, a volatile market. The filament used in Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is considerably cheaper.

The only significant roadblock is time. 3D printing is still a lengthy process compared to the efficiency of modern factories. A single car can take up to two weeks to print. Trying to scale up to equal factory efficiency is a huge capital outlay, with industrial printers costing tens of thousands of dollars a piece. The expense is impossible to justify with the current economic model. But if the model itself changes, it would be a different story.

The Adjustable Car

Earlier last year, we talked about Tesla’s experiment with software updates in the automotive aftermarket. They offered driver-assisted autonomous features for download, and in doing so paved the way for other models of updating a car’s performance. With the example of a hypothetical customer who had a car designed for urban driving but was going to haul a trailer through the mountains, he would need more horsepower, so in theory, he could pay for a temporary horsepower upgrade to his vehicle’s firmware.

3D printing could be combined with this capability to offer an even more elaborate set of changes. The OEM might design a skeleton/chassis that is equipped with adaptable firmware that can be updated over the air. Over that chassis could sit a 3D-printed body, which could be made more cheaply than a steel or aluminum counterpart. The body would not be quite as strong as aluminum or steel, but 3D cars can be designed to be replaced.

If the car crashes, the damaged parts could be replaced by new ones. But new car body parts could also be swapped in after a couple of years of regular driving, when the customer decides that they are ready for a new type of vehicle. They might need a station wagon now, or be ready to trade in for a sports car. Maybe they just want their vehicle to look unique, like nothing else on the road.

The low costs of manufacturing and the ability to create virtually any design using one set of materials mean that OEMs can accommodate all these desires. The car can become adaptable and modifiable, inside and out, with the performance of the vehicle shifting to match its exterior design. If the OEM is the only one who can change the car parts, or update the software, they have a life-long aftermarket partnership with their customers.

It is up to each OEM to decide how they want to handle the details of this new model – offering free upgrades as well as voluntary ones, or discounts for different car parts. Popular models could cost more, and completely custom options even more. It is one way to increase revenue in a shifting market — in fact, with this model, it almost does not make sense to use the term ‘aftermarket’ anymore. The lifespan of the car is the market.

Customers want flexibility and personalization. They do not want to be tied down to one product, one car, one look. 3D printing, combined with OTA software updating techniques, will finally give them this flexibility, allowing OEMs to dictate the market in a new world.

As the auto industry is changed by technological and economic currents, OEMs and Tier-1 manufacturers will need to partner with technological specialists to thrive in the era of the software defined car. Movimento’s expertise is rooted in our background as an automotive company. This has allowed us to create the technological platform that underpins the future of the software driven and self-driven car. Connect with us today to learn more about how we can work together.

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