The recent announcement from 3D printing giant Stratasys that it is partnering with Daihatsu, a division of Toyota, could have deep implications for the future of 3D printing for mass customization.
While 3D printing has been integral to certain areas of the automotive industry for decades—a staple in the racecar industry, for instance—it has yet to be used beyond low-volume production. Now, 3D printing is moving beyond that specialized space, in a move that could signal a breakthrough in the automotive industry.
Stratasys, owner of the desktop printer MakerBot, had previously been working with automotive companies in prototyping. But, this new collaboration between Stratasys, Diahatsu, and local industrial designers takes things a step further by yielding 10 different 3D-printed designs and patterns created by Stratasys Fortus printers, which buyers can customize for Daihatsu's 2-door convertible, Copen.
What Stratasys has developed is a thin, flexible, UV-resistant Effect Skin that can be applied to the car's front and rear bumper areas. Customers can pick from 10 Stratasys ASA 3D printing materials and 15 base patterns, and customize the Effect Skin design for a unique look.
Previously, making this kind of product would "have been feasible, but with significantly less choice," said Jim Vurpillat, director of marketing for automotive and aerospace at Stratasys.
SEE: 3D printing: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
"You could have one or two patterns, not 15," Vurpillat said. "It would have been twice as expensive. And, you probably wouldn't get the level of detail of the part with traditional tooling. This enables broader choice, enables it quicker, and enables it at a lower cost."
He sees Stratasys as responding to a growing demand for customization. "Everyone wants to make their car unique," said Vurpillat. "Typically, that means lower-volume and increased part costs. You might not be able to get many options to get a personalized look."
The new offering solves these issues. Because there are 15 different options, users can experiment. Vurpillat said that he knows some options might not be as popular as others, but it doesn't matter because a big financial investment hasn't been made in additional tooling.
"This is a nice marriage," said Vurpillat. "It's technology coming together to help solve a trend to meet the goals of a trend in the marketplace."
SEE: Photos: New Stratasys 3D printer can make 360,000 colors on 6 materials (TechRepublic)
Of course, there are still limitations for what is possible for 3D printed car parts, said Pete Basiliere, research vice president for imaging and print services at Gartner. "How do you define a 3D printed car?," he said "You can't do electronics. You can't do a combustion engine."
"Is it a functional part like a brake? No," said Basiliere. "Is it something that makes these cars distinguished from all the other Daihatsus on the lot? Absolutely."
The news could also have implications for what else is possible in the auto industry.
"I think you'll see an evolution," Vurpillat said. "As printer speed increases, as material development increases, you'll see more applications within the automotive industry."
Basiliere agreed. "We're continuing along the path of a focus on prototyping to finished goods. As more businesses try out 3D printed components, and consumers experience them, we'll continue to see market growth and mass customization."
"This is evidence of the growing use of 3D printing within the automotive industry, and buyer acceptance of 3D printing," said Basiliere.
Bigger automakers are also looking into 3D printing "to save time, money, and to be more creative," said Vurpillat. When asked if he could see Stratasys working with these carmakers in the future, he responded: "Absolutely."
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Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.