WHOEVER said you canít create something from nothing clearly never witnessed 3D printing. Even in this high-tech modern world, to watch this groundbreaking technology in action is akin to witchcraft, as a complex object slowly forms before your very eyes.
Automotive applications for 3D printing have taken a while to arrive, as the industry generally deals with high-volume parts, the production of which is currently better served by traditional techniques. However, as the technology improves, manufacturers, particularly high-end ones, are increasingly appreciating its merits.
There are a number of types of 3D printing, also known as Ďadditive manufacturingí, but all essentially work in the same way. Just as a traditional printer puts text on a page using layers of ink, a 3D printer builds an object one layer at a time by transforming a liquefied or powdered material into a solid. The process allows a wide variety of materials to be used, but its chief advantages are its ability to make incredibly complex objects in one fell swoop and the speed with which objects can be made.
Letís use the McLaren F1 team, which now takes a 3D printer to every race, as an example. It required a new hydraulic line bracket, but whereas once it would have needed to design and manufacture the bracket before applying it at the next race, now the design data can be sent from its Woking home to the racetrack and the piece printed in four hours rather than the two weeks it would take to make the bracket by traditional means.
McLaren primarily uses FDM (filament deposition modelling) printing, heating a specially designed material and depositing it layer-by-layer which quickly cools into a solid state. HSV has been using a similar method since 2010 in order to produce prototype parts. It first tried 3D printing for test bodykits to check fitment and has continued to expand its use to the present day as it converts Camaro and Silverado to right-hand drive.
Another common 3D printing method is SLS (Selective Laser Sintering). This uses a laser to fuse an extremely thin layer (less than 0.1mm) of super-fine powder and is capable of producing incredibly complex objects from a range of materials to a very high quality.
Porsche Classic is now using SLS to manufacture very low-volume parts such as the clutch release lever and fuel cap gasket for the 959 supercar. Porsche says the parts easily passed all internal quality requirements.
3D printing could prove a godsend for classic car owners who find parts virtually nonexistent, as all thatís required is design data or a three-dimensional scan of an existing component.
Print my Ride
Why not a whole car?
GIVEN a 3D printer can make virtually any part in any shape, it is theoretically possible to print an entire car.
In fact, itís more than theoretically possible, as Arizona company Local Motors has produced the Strati, which is 75 per cent 3D-printed.
The Strati is made from carbon-fibre reinforced plastic and its core structure was produced in just 44 hours.
The entire structure can be printed in one piece, similar to the monocoque of a Ferrari LaFerrari or McLaren 720S, and bizarrely, damaged parts can be reduced to the core material and used to make new parts.
Safety could potentially improve due to the ability to make complex structures (even honeycombs) from strong, lightweight materials like carbon or titanium.
The Strati uses the running gear from a Renault Twizy, making it one of the most simple vehicles ever made. An electric motor has a single moving part and 3D printing means the Strati is made up of far fewer individual components.
Large-scale 3D printing is a long way off, partly because the traditional methods are so finely honed, but it previews some exciting possibilities.
Bugatti recently announced it had successfully 3D printed an entire Chiron brake caliper out of titanium. The eight-piston caliper is traditionally made from aluminium, but the titanium version is both stronger and 40 per cent lighter, weighing in at 2.9kg compared to the standard partís 4.9kg.
Titanium calipers have previously not been possible as the materialís strength has made it virtually impossible to mill or forge components. Reducing it to a powder (donít spill it!) solves this issue, allowing the titanium to form any desired shape.
The brake caliper is made up of 2213 layers of titanium powder. After each layer is applied the Laser Zentrum Nord 3D printer zaps the powder with four 400-watt lasers, melting it then allowing it to immediately reform as a solid layer.
Following the application of the final layer the unmelted titanium powder is removed and cleaned so it can be used again, while the caliper itself undergoes heat treatment and smoothing to ensure its strength. In total, the process takes 45 hours.
Bugatti will now trial the technology for use with production-spec parts, with a substantial shortening of the manufacturing process expected. While serial production printing is a long way off, for high-end makers 3D printing could be the next frontier in reducing weight and improve performance.