How 3D Printed Car Parts are Revolutionizing the Car Industry

Enthusiasts and manufacturers increasingly rely on 3D printing to make small batches of parts.

3D printerShutterstock

QuickTakes:

3D printing emerged in the late 1980s, but it took several decades for the machines to become small and affordable enough for hobbyists to use. As the number of people who own a 3D printer grows, so does the selection of items available to print.

For car enthusiasts, 3D printing can be a boon: It provides the ability to design and make parts and accessories that are either not available from traditional vendors or costly. In turn, the technology has created a new sector of the aftermarket that's relatively inexpensive and accessible.

3D Printers Can Produce Aftermarket Products Faster and Cheaper

3D printing can offer several advantages, such as rapid prototyping, fewer expenses, and the ability to print and customize an item on demand. Generally, 3D printing is better suited to small-batch production than plastic injection molding is, partly because it's a technology that does not require a mold. The only hardware required beyond the printer itself is a roll of printing filament.

Thingiverse, a global platform where more than 2 million users share 3D-printing files, lists a big selection of aftermarket car accessories. Some fit a wide variety of cars. For example, users can print a coin organizer designed for a cupholder or a skull-shaped shift knob for a car with a manual transmission.

Other accessories fit specific models: Users can download the files to print a center cap for the Ronal Inca wheel that Saab offered on the 99 and 900, window inserts for a Jeep Wrangler, sun visor clips for a Jeep Grand Cherokee, or a boost gauge air vent mount for a fourth-generation Volkswagen Golf.

3D printing remains more complicated than, say, printing out a wiring diagram on plain paper because a number of parameters need to be set correctly to obtain a quality part. Vendors on several online platforms (including forums) sell 3D-printed car parts for novice printers and enthusiasts who don't own a 3D printer.

Several aftermarket companies also leverage the benefits of 3D printing. Printer manufacturer Ultimaker noted that hot-rod builder Tucci Hot Rods uses the technology to make parts for some of the cars it builds, including a Ford Fiesta ST displayed at the 2016 SEMA show.

A green Porsche 959Manuel Carrillo III | Capital One

3D Printing Facilitates Automotive Restoration

Some restoration shops and parts vendors rely on 3D printing to make components that carmakers no longer produce. Poland-based Alfa Project reverse-engineers parts such as shift knobs, air vents, and blanking plates for classic Alfa Romeo models and uses a 3D modeling software to improve them. It then 3D-prints a prototype, makes adjustments as necessary, and prints the final part. Decades of hindsight makes it possible to identify a flaw in a part's original design and 3D printing lets Alfa Project upgrade it.

"Thanks to rapid prototyping, we can quickly and easily apply changes to the project and create elements in a shorter time. At the same time, we can significantly improve the fit of the printed elements to the already existing equipment," Alfa Project said in an article by 3D manufacturer, Zortrax.

Additive Restoration uses 3D printing to make parts that are difficult to find or no longer available. Its catalog includes a sunroof knob for the original Volkswagen Scirocco, an electrical junction cover for a Ferrari 330 GTC, and a window regulator gear for an ISO Rivolta. Italy-based ISO closed in the 1970s and no longer builds reproduction parts. It's up to the aftermarket to provide the components needed to keep cars on the road, and 3D printing makes producing a small number of parts more financially feasible.

Ford's Adoption of 3D Printing Technology

Ford has done more to encourage the adoption of 3D printing than most of its peers and rivals. It lets Maverick owners 3D-print a wide range of parts compatible with the Ford Integrated Tether System, which it describes as "a series of slots at the rear of the center console and the under-seat storage bins designed to be used with accessories."

Thingiverse lists several Maverick-compatible parts, including a trash-bag holder, a cupholder, an umbrella holder, and even a small tray designed to hold six chicken nuggets and a sauce container. Alternatively, owners can download CAD files corresponding to the center console and the under-seat storage and use them to design their own accessories.

3D-printed accessories for Ford products are also available on online platforms such as Etsy, alongside several custom auto-accessory options. Digital stores let enthusiasts offset the cost of the printer and the filament while generating revenue.

Integration of 3D-Printed OEM Parts

Car manufacturers are gradually integrating 3D printing into their research and development efforts. Porsche began selling a customizable bucket seat made with 3D-printed car parts in October 2021, and it invested in Chinese 3D printing specialist INTAMSYS in December 2021 to explore additional ways to bring the technology into the automotive industry.

3D printing can allow carmakers to resume production of parts that are no longer available. Porsche's Classic division offers a 3D-printed clutch release lever for the 959, and Mercedes-Benz's catalog of classic parts includes 3D-printed car parts as well.

Paris-based Peugeot makes a range of 3D-printed car accessories for the 308 hatchback, including phone and sunglasses holders. It explained that 3D printing increases flexibility and reduces development costs.

BMW is another pioneer in the field of 3D printing. It began experimenting with the technology in 1990 and 3D-printed the mounting bracket for the i8 Roadster's roof. It noted that the 3D-printed part weighs less and is stronger than an identical component made with a more traditional manufacturing method.

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Ronan Glon
Ronan Glon is an American journalist and automotive historian based in France. He enjoys working on old cars and spending time outdoors seeking out his next project car.