Printers used to make custom spare car parts
Traditional manufacturing is not under threat just yet, but 3D printers are being used to make smaller customised runs of spare parts on site.
3D printers manufacture items by building them from the ground up, printing successive layers of plastic, metals or even wood compounds, to create three-dimensional objects. They can print everything from jewellery and kitchen gadgets, to shoes for Paris Fashion Week.
With more materials of engineering grade becoming available for 3D printers, they are increasingly used for printing spare parts, says Jordan Brandt, technology futurist at Autodesk which makes 3D design software.
UK-based motor sport and technology company Prodrive, better known for producing rally cars, is using a 3D printer costing around $5000 to make spare car parts.
A complicated part can be designed and built quickly and accurately with 3D printing compared with using carbon fibre moulds, says chief engineer Paul Eastman.
For example, the aerodynamic part on the bonnet of a Mini rally car is expensive to make due to its intricate shape. "We need a few of them [in reserve] because they are prone to getting struck by branches and snapping.
"But we can just press a button and in 24 hours we've got five for the left and five for the right in one build. For us, it's the speed of printing the spare parts so we can stock the shelves."
It can also print larger items such as the steering rack and sections of the engine.
Prodrive also uses 3D printed parts to make tooling for other parts, such as exhaust pipes, printing the mould from a CAD file.
"Normally, the first one isn't right, but now we have a plastic printed part to look at first. It's easier to see how to change the bumper bar looking at a three-dimensional object versus CAD models on the screen. It's then just copied in metal. 3D is more accurate and produces faster results.
"The challenge today is making parts structural - that's the next step."
3D printers are also great for making spare parts on the go in remote situations, says Brandt.
"NASA can't anticipate all the parts needed on a moon base or in orbit, so the idea is to set up a 3D printer to print out parts it can't predict are needed."
3D printers are highly suited to printing customised parts. However, 3D printing in large volumes is challenging, says Brandt.
"It is difficult to achieve efficiency of mass production. Traditional manufacturing is still the winner. Eventually, a decade or more out, I think 3D printing will produce large quantities faster."