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Is the Future of Car Manufacturing in 3D Printing?

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Aalborg University's Cimbrer car uses parts from a 3D printer.

It looks like an oversized Lego construction, weighs a mere 81 kilograms (178 pounds) and is assembled from scratch in under two hours. Students of the Aalborg University in Denmark 3D-printed hundreds of parts holding together their car for the Shell Eco-marathon competition in Rotterdam. Is this the future of car manufacturing? (See related post: “It’s Not About Speed as 30th Eco-marathon Europe Begins.”)

First there was one 3D printer. With that, six other 3D printers were built. And out of those printers came bright green parts large and small made of thermoplastic filament. “All that’s green in our car is 3D printed,” Professor Soren Andreasen explains. “It’s like a giant puzzle of which we designed the pieces ourselves.”

Reasons for printing are plenty, according to Andreasen and his team. First of all, the material is cheap: 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of ABS filament costs thirty to forty euros (41 to 54 dollars). Compared to aluminum and carbon fiber, both much harder to shape in free forms, that’s a bargain.

Also, and very important in the Eco-marathon efficiency competition, its ultra-light weight. Parts that used to add a kilogram of extra weight to the car, now account for no more than 50 grams—a weight reduction of 95 percent realized by the material used and the honeycomb structure inside the parts. (See related pictures: “Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55 MPG.”)

Last but not least, 3D printing is more flexible. If a part breaks a replacement is printed within minutes. “The car is like furniture you buy at Ikea,” says Christian Jeppensen, PhD student and team member. “Only we don’t have to go back to the store when a part is missing from the package because we can design and print it ourselves.”

Last year Aalborg University was the first team to use 3D printers to build essential parts of their car. This year Euregiorunners from the Netherlands adopted the same strategy. The Dutch used 15 table-sized 3D printers to produce a giant puzzle of 220 blocks of biodegradable polylactic acid which, put together, functioned as a mold for the carbon fiber body. The dashboard, steering wheel, air intake and some smaller parts were printed directly.

‘It took us two weeks to learn all about the process of 3D printing and another 1,500 hours to print all the parts we needed’, team leader Kenny Stinges explains. ‘It’s a time consuming process with a steep learning curve. But in the end our car is four times lighter and much cheaper than the car we built last year.’

Both teams agree that the future of all products is in 3D printing. Just last week Andreasen printed a replacement part for his vacuum cleaner at home. Others have used the technology to produce prosthetic limbs at a fraction of the cost they would have paid regular manufacturers.

Rob van Loevezijn, teacher and team manager of the Dutch Euregiorunner team likes the fact that his students learn all about 3D printing because of this weekend’s Eco-marathon: “Discovering the potential of this technology is the fun part. It forces our students to be creative and come up with new solutions for existing problems.” (Take the related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Cars and Fuel.”)

*Shell is sponsor of the Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.