When the first automobiles were made on Henry Ford’s manufacturing line in 1913, the efficiency gained was unfathomable. A process that previously took over 12 hours could be done in only two and a half hours by workers on an assembly line. This led a revolution of mass production that has shaped modern society at a fundamental level. We continue to see those impacts today. Now, one company is leading another revolution: manufacturing a car with 3-D printed materials.
Traditionally, vehicles are constructed predominantly of steel and aluminium among a vast array of other component materials. Historic manufacturing hubs like Detroit relied on a steady stream of materials to keep up with production demands. Today, manufacturing these vehicles is a fast-paced, global business that relies on a complex network of suppliers. Ford alone produced over 6.4 million units in 2016 (the most recent year numbers were published). 3-D printing capabilities can drastically streamline the manufacturing process and greatly increase efficiency. These polymer innovations mean that companies can create these products with less complexity in less time–ultimately saving money.
3-D printing pioneer Polymaker, in coordination with Italian car company XEV, created a vehicle that is printed using modern additive techniques. For a long time, 3-D printing was only used for rapid prototyping in engineering and design. Materials traditionally used for 3-D printing, like PLA and ABS, have specific limitations that prohibit them from use in a fully- functioning car. PLA, for example, deforms when heated. This makes it unsuitable for applications where it might come in contact with high temperatures, such as exhaust systems, combustion engines, or even electric motors.
Many people never thought these synthetic polymers, many of which were pioneered in the 20th century alongside automobiles themselves, could stand up to the forces and demands of everyday vehicles. With new innovations, though, 3-D printed auto parts are proving to be light, inexpensive, and structurally sound for automotive applications.
Polymaker has become a catalyst for innovation by using “functional, high performance” materials (which are currently undisclosed by Polymaker) that can stand up to the rigors of a car’s life cycle. The vehicle, called LSEV, is electric and similar in size to a Smart Car. Everything except the chassis, seats, and glass is constructed using 3-D printed materials. While this is an incredible feat in itself, it’s most notable that this can be done for $7,500. The fact that this innovative product can be manufactured for a relatively low cost means that technology like this might be seen in consumer products in the not-too-distant future.
3-D printing holds great promise in everything from military applications in remote areas to bioresorbable medical devices. Even customized implants that revolutionize a patient’s quality-of-life can be created using this technique. What was once only a dream became a tool for prototyping and has today become a truly viable advancement across industries.
We’re sure to see 3-D printing only increase as time goes on. With increased manufacturing ability also comes the need for independent testing. Here at Polymer Solutions, we’re excited for the future of these innovative products. Our capabilities with additives analysis and expert independent polymer testing means that we always monitor these exciting advancements closely. This innovative and functional design really revolutionizes the way we think about automotive manufacturing. What traditionally requires a complex manufacturing system is now possible much more simply with 3-D printing techniques.
With fast-paced innovation comes the need for stress testing and failure analysis on these cutting edge products, services we’re happy to provide here at PSI. Our team loves supporting innovators and industry changers with our testing services.