Business: 3D printing: Print my ride
A mass-market carmaker starts customising vehicles individually.
Another milestone has been passed in the adoption of additive manufacturing, popularly known as 3D printing.Daihatsu, a Japanese manufacturer of small cars and a subsidiary of Toyota, an industry giant, announced on June 20th that it would begin offering car buyers the opportunity to customise their vehicles with 3D-printed parts.This brings to drivers with more modest budgets the kind of individual tailoring of vehicles hitherto restricted to the luxury limousines and sports cars of the super-rich.The service is available only to buyers of the Daihatsu Copen, a tiny convertible two-seater.Customers ordering this car from their local dealer can choose one of 15 “effect skins”, decorative panels embellished with intricate patterns in ten different colours.The buyers can then use a website to tinker with the designs further to create exactly the look they want.The skins are printed in a thermoplastic material using additive-manufacturing machines from Stratasys, an American company.The results are then stuck on the front and rear body panels.Copen buyers will like selecting unique add-ons rather than choosing from a list of standard accessories, reckons Osamu Fujishita of Daihatsu.The company is testing the service in a few markets but plans to make it widely available by early 2017.
“I think the Copen project is just the start,” adds Mr Fujishita.Other carmakers are watching closely.Generally, personal customisation is available only where money is no object—on cars such as Rolls-Royces and Ferraris.But 3D printers change the economics of production.Since software, rather than skilled craftsmen working in wood or metal, is behind the process, changes can be made easily and cheaply; traditional machine tools used in mass-production factories make design alterations expensive and slow.And 3D printing saves on retooling costs to make small runs of parts (and spares if they suffer damage later) .The aerospace industry is already well advanced in using 3D printers for custom parts.
Airlines often specify customised fittings for the interiors of their aircraft; Airbus prints internal cabin fittings for some variants of its new A350XWB commercial jet, for instance.Specialised parts are 3D-printed for racing cars too, but until Daihatsu’s move, mainstream carmakers have mainly used 3D machines to make prototype vehicles rather than production parts.Local Motors, a tiny Arizona company, shows where things may head next.It prints substantial parts for a variety of vehicles using “large-area” 3D printers that can cope with bigger jobs than standard machines.Local Motors prints cars using a blend of plastic and lightweight carbon fibre.One of its vehicles, the LM3D roadster, is 75% printed.The firm’s latest creation is an autonomous electric minibus which can carry 12 passengers.
Local Motors reckons that the use of 3D printing will make it possible to produce vehicles to individual designs in microfactories anywhere in the world to cater to local motoring tastes.This would represent a return to an earlier age of motoring when coach builders would be engaged to design and fabricate bespoke bodies for Bugattis, Duesenbergs or Rollers.The wheel is turning back.