When 3D scanning and printing technologies are discussed, many people envision the application in a factory with an army of printers working fastidiously to mass-produce goods in a mechanized dance. From 3D printing’s inception, the technology has held promise of being able to revolutionize industrial practices by allowing incredibly precise designs to be created out of a “single piece” of material with minimal waste, the key difference between additive manufacturing (3D printing) and subtractive manufacturing (machining / milling).
While we will inevitably see a future where new products are printed from the latest strong, light, and printable material, the vision of what can be is only part of the opportunity for 3D printing; the technology can also be used to preserve what was.
As a car enthusiast, I enjoy driving, admiring, restoring, and maintaining older vehicles. Historically, the advent of the automotive industry was critical for the development of the modern world. I view vehicles like works of art: they have had an immense impact on society and can evoke visceral reactions through sight, sound, smell, and performance characteristics. More critically, looking at the range of cars in a given model year can be used to acquire an understanding of what the society that produced that car was like during that time period. With such prominent historical value, I feel that it’s important for key models to be preserved, much like paintings and sculptures, to give future generations an understanding of where they came from.
As manufacturers discontinue models, replacement parts from dealers become unavailable, requiring sourcing parts from Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and aftermarket suppliers. For popular models, full restoration garages and parts tend to be readily available. With less-popular models, an aftermarket company may create a limited run for a group of enthusiasts, but factories must be retooled, the part designed in CAD if no data is available from an OEM, and the overall process is expensive for both the manufacturer and consumer. Furthermore, aftermarket manufacturers do not always have high-quality reproductions of components, which means fitment is not ideal without further work or materials sometimes do not match the rest of the vehicle. Yet many cars simply do not have high enough of a demand to support a sustainable aftermarket business venture.
Where does this leave owners looking for a part made to factory specifications? Quite simply, they are left to an extensive scavenger hunt. While body panels are typically easy to source due to the requirement of accident repair, what really becomes difficult to find are smaller, intricate parts; the bezel around a gauge in the instrument cluster, a latch for a compartment in the center console, or a small knob for the climate controls can be the bane of a restorer’s search efforts.
The primary source is a junked vehicle from the same generation. While this is easy to do within five to ten years after a vehicle is produced, it becomes increasingly difficult to find components in good condition after this point. Natural deterioration from environmental exposure (UV light, precipitation and humidity, temperature fluctuations, etc.) more often than not renders the parts into a sub-optimal condition. Beyond this, the supply of junked vehicles and parts is decreased overall due to other people seeking the same components for their own cars.
The remaining options available to an owner then become increasingly expensive: purchase an entire second car for a few parts. Unfortunately, this sometimes means a very well-kept car is purchased and plundered of parts, left in a half-built state. This automotive cannibalism only worsens the problem. Eventually, parts or vehicles are no longer available in any capacity.
While many classic car owners pride themselves on restoration projects using original OEM parts, I know of owners who have spent months and even years trying to
track down parts for their old car, and I know of another who cannot find the parts they need from factory or third-party manufacturers. The hassle and expense of the search, the storage requisite for the donor car in addition to the recipient car, and the ever decreasing availability of donor vehicles is causing some owners to try fabricating their own parts.
This is where application of 3D scanning and printing technologies offer an option previously unavailable to owners. By scanning parts from a pristine model or recreating the parts in CAD software, a 3D printing service can produce one-off parts for customers as long as their printer can use the appropriate type of material and have a printing area large enough to accommodate the dimensions for the part.
The main advantage for businesses is that there will be no requirement for large warehouses to store parts that may not ever be purchased. Instead, smaller warehouses for storage of top-selling printed parts can become the norm, as lower-demand products can be printed as needed from a library of 3D data files. This concept of on-demand supply will help businesses more efficiently allocate physical and, subsequently, monetary resources for maximized profit.
By filling this gap with 3D printing, owners will have the opportunity to have a factory-spec part without the frustration of the scavenger hunt, and businesses can model their operations around stocking products that sell regularly while still being able to offer uncommonly sold parts for the occasional customer project. As the technology improves and large-scale 3D printers are more economically viable, larger interior components and exterior body panels will be feasible for printing in a matter of hours as opposed to the current printing speed of days. The company Local Motors has managed to print the components for their 3D printed car, the Strati, in 44 hours (https://localmotors.com/3d-printed-car/).
The loss of historically and/or sentimentally significant vehicles can be avoided with 3D scanning and printing technologies, even more so as the technologies allow a broader span of materials to be printed. All it will take is a CAD file or fully-restored car from a willing enthusiast and access to an industrial-grade 3D scanner and printer. In an Archimedean style, “give me 3D scanner and printer, and I can replicate the world.”
Image by Local Motors, https://localmotors.com.
David Hamilton is an alumni of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Aerospace Studies and actively participated in the Embry-Riddle Sport, Compact, and Import Car Club. With minors in Aeronautical Studies, Space Studies, and Unmanned Aircraft Systems Applications, David has participated in several interdisciplinary research projects. His interests beyond aerospace include automobiles, writing, and photography. To contact David, you can visit his LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidjohnhamilton.