Driving automotive innovation with additive manufacturing

Infinite Editorial Team
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Part II of this four-part series examines additive manufacturing in automotive today and its applications for the future

Additive manufacturing (AM) is a well-established component in automotive prototyping and production, predominantly for the creation of jigs, tools, and other aids found on factory floors. Adoption continues to grow, driven by greater efficiency, new build and support materials, and a move to open printing platforms.


But 3D printing, and specifically fused filament fabrication (FFF), has taken AM off the factory floor and onto the road, driven by applications like high-temperature thermoplastics in racing, end-use parts for vintage cars, and custom components for new car buyers. Today, FFF is helping automakers create entirely new products and revenue streams.

A permanent fixture: prototyping continues to dominate

Previously, a molding tool for a complex plastic part can take weeks, or several months for a large part, to design, create, and test. An FFF print of the same part can cut that down to two weeks, and–even better–allows engineers to iterate quickly and optimize the part.


Speed may be critical, both on the line and on the track, but it’s not the only advantage AM offers automotive manufacturers. ROI is a major factor for anything less than very high part volumes. Small molds start at around $10,000 and escalate quickly from there. Very large molds can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.


Additionally, a large tool printed in thermoplastic will weigh much less than aluminum, making it safer, more ergonomic, and thus easier to use, leading to further productivity gains on the line.


The adoption of Total Quality Management (TQM), popularized by Toyota in the 1960s, has resulted in the widespread use of aides like poka-yoke. “Poka-yoke" translates as error-proofing or mistake-proofing. For example, AM is used to create a poka-yoke tray that holds all of the pieces needed for a specific manufacturing step to help eliminate assembly mistakes.


Inspection fixtures are another example of AM’s value in auto manufacturing. When a Mercedes reaches the end of the production line, it’s time to place the badge, or emblem, on the car. A crooked or slightly-off emblem would never pass a QC check on a Mercedes. A simple fixture ensures accurate placement by aligning the emblem with other parts. Traditionally, such a tool would have been made out of steel, but once again, 3D printing is faster, cheaper, and lighter.

With FFF, engineers can have a more open mind to a problem. AM gives an engineer more tools in their tool belt than conventional injection molding. It’s the way to go.
— Jeff Cernohous, Ph.D., Chief Operating Officer, Infinite



a man at a desk working on a part

Design automation in acceleration

Production cycles are getting shorter and demand for greater efficiency continues to grow. Prototyping fixtures and jigs created within a “digitized” manufacturing process, notably the implementation of automated solutions that speed up design cycles, enables engineers to quickly assess design options before printing.


For example, as noted in a report from autonomous software developer AMFG, Ford has shown how automation can reduce the time to design tools from hours to minutes.


By partnering with a German software company, Trinckle, Ford used software to automatically generate the geometry of the tool to fit the contour of the car and form the base of the new jig. With a simple click, engineers could also add elements such as handles, magnet mounts for fixation, and edge guides.


Automating the design process for this part has saved several hours of work, reducing the design step to just 10 minutes. Ford believes this approach has the potential to save thousands of euros per tool. 

Open systems for 3D printing of automotive parts

The domination of closed, proprietary, AM systems is giving way to open systems, which today can offer both flexibility and the ease-of-use and consistency of results needed by manufacturers.

Creating an Ultimaker profile required months of work on our part, but the result was worth it — providing customers the flexibility of an open system with the certainty of a closed system.
—Brandon Cernohous, Production Operations Manager, Infinite

End-use parts

Additive manufacturing is fueling a new and growing market: replacement parts. As with many automotive firsts, it was at the high end of the market that innovation first appeared. Already a fixture in the racing and supercar segments, it didn’t take too long for manufacturers to see the potential AM holds for venerated classics. Porsche, for example, is now using AM to print parts (in metal and plastics) on demand.


The clutch-release lever for the Porsche 959 is no longer available. Manufacturing new tooling aids with traditional methods would be cost-prohibitive for a model like the 959 because fewer than 300 were ever produced. But keeping these pioneering mechanical marvels performing is important to the brand. Porsche is expanding its 3D printing parts program to produce other rare, low-volume spare parts for its older inventory.


a woman holding a blue automotive part

Roadblocks and speed bumps

Speed and cost remain the two greatest challenges for the wider adoption of additive manufacturing in the automotive sector. In a recent survey of AM leaders, predictions of falling costs and faster production speeds were a common theme.


In the survey, Dr. Kaj Führer, CEO, enter2net stated, "There will be cost reductions in technology and materials through volume scaling so that AM will conquer further shares of the manufacturing technology mix. I am curious to see when not only individual components in the automotive environment will be optimized for AM, but when AM-optimized industrial implementation of large assemblies like whole engines or car bodies takes place. The latter can already be seen in the aerospace industry with aircraft engines."


silver cars in an assembly line

Just press print: the AM-produced car

What’s really going to move the industry forward is innovation around materials.
—Brandon Cernohous, Production Operations Manager, Infinite

Phoenix, Arizona-based Local Motors made a splash in 2014 when it announced, and then produced, the first-ever 3D printed electric car — Strati — at the International Manufacturing Technology Show.


Local Motors blew past the five-to-seven years it typically takes traditional auto manufacturing to get from decision to build, and instead took just 12 months, or five times faster, to produce its first model.


The company isn’t making a consumer product — their production is low-volume, focused on the autonomous people-movers that you’d find on a large campus or airport, but they’ve demonstrated the promise of mass customization, which is an innovation that consumers can drive home today.


Customized cars are nothing new. That long, colorful history now has a new chapter, one featuring regular car buyers, not just enthusiasts. New car buyers already have had the option to customize exteriors, on Daihatsu’s Copen model, and interior elements, in BMW-maker MINI models.



"Alexa, remove my wheel nuts, please"

More recently, Ford announced an intriguing experiment, using AM to creating custom, locking wheel nuts that are keyed using "voiceprint" files. It wouldn’t quite mean asking Alexa to remove your wheel bolts so you can put snow tires on, but it does illustrate how many new solutions are out there waiting to be implemented.


It’s easy to imagine these mass-custom production techniques finding their way into the mainstream of automotive manufacturing.


Another area worth watching is electric vehicle production. It’s what they don’t have that attracts–a high heat-producing engine. Electric cars don’t have to contend with an operating environment that’s hostile to many popular AM build materials, so that opens up opportunities to include more cost-effective 3D-printed parts.


Given that electric vehicles are also mechanically simpler than their fossil-fuel-burning ancestors, a focus away from the engine and horsepower bragging rights toward human-centered features might tempt tomorrow’s automotive designers into entirely new directions.


Whatever lies down the road for today's automotive market, we can be certain that AM will continue to play a vital part.

a car wheel



Market snapshot

The Automotive Additive Manufacturing Market is expected to grow

 from USD 6.45 Billion in 2018 to USD 11.85 Billion by 2026, at a CAGR of 7.5%.




An even more bullish forecast from Grandview Research

USD 11.58 billion CAGR exceeding 14% from 2020 to 2027.




Fun Facts

77% percent of AM market share accounted for by industrial, vs. Desktop, users in 2019.


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