The mere presence of some cars can inspire creative journeys and wishful thinking. But a life-size Shelby Cobra, made with a 3-D printer? That takes even visionaries down a whole different road.
Cincinnati Inc. (www.e-ci.com) – an innovative machine tool manufacturer for more than 100 years – has been behind the printing of two such cars through its Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) technology; the first was in conjunction with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (www.ornl.gov), the largest U.S. Department of Energy science and energy lab, located in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Over the past couple of years, the cars have been used as marketing tools, a clear demonstration of potential.
Even though the Cobras have been transported to events in enclosed trailers rather than driven, they’re still enough to make many stop and wonder: If a 3-D printer can make a car or other vehicle, wouldn’t it follow that it would soon be in use to supply equipment parts as well? Will we soon see maintenance shops creating their own replacement parts for utility and other vehicles, rather than having to store them, purchase them elsewhere or wait for delivery?
Time to tap the brakes. Three-dimensional printing is indeed showing promise in a variety of industries. But in terms of creating parts that can withstand heat, water, chemicals and other challenges facing current automotive materials, we’re not there yet. First, there’s a fundamental point of physics to be overcome, said Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media and telecommunications research for Deloitte Canada (www.deloitte.com/ca). Even if printers and processes become significantly faster – silencing those who believe no one will want to wait the hours it takes to create parts – there’s still the matter of allowing each printed layer to cool completely before the next one is applied. Eventually, the rate of progress will reach a saturation point.
“I am willing to say that 3-D printers will be faster in 2020,” Stewart said. “But that doesn’t mean that something that takes eight hours to print will take seven. It may go from eight hours to six, or maybe four, but it’s not going to be eight minutes.”
Listen to the current hype, and it’s easy to believe that 3-D printing is already being done en masse – and for a lot more than making Star Wars figurines. But as far as Stewart knows, based on conversations in recent years with those in the industry, there are no major manufacturers using finished parts in their production cars today.
What’s more likely is that 3-D printing will increasingly be used for tooling, jigs, dies, molds and rapid prototyping. Stewart also envisions a rise in service bureaus printing out specific items in “ones and twos” rather than larger quantities, as well as the use of 3-D printers for, say, items needed on an aircraft carrier or in space, where the wait for a spare would be significantly longer.
Overall, though, “we’ve got to dial this stuff back,” he said. “There are some unrealistic expectations.”
At Cincinnati Inc., BAAM is indeed available; the latest iteration can print objects as large as 20 feet long by 8 feet wide by 6 feet tall, at a rate of 100 pounds of material per hour. But it’s considered a beta machine rather than a product machine, and it’s offered through “pre-qualified sale,” said Matt Garbarino, marketing manager. Cincinnati's forte is in machine building, not material development; the company wants to ensure that engineering resources and the right materials suppliers are able to join in the collaboration, so the company is more likely to sell to someone with like-minded objectives. Development must continue so that end products have the right properties.
Also of note is how a newly printed item comes off a 3-D machine. For the second Shelby Cobra, for example, the body took 12 hours to print, but sanding, painting and decaling it took weeks.
Regardless, 3-D enthusiasm continues to rise. When Cincinnati Inc. displayed one of the cars at The Work Truck Show 2016, which took place in March, Garbarino said many attendees were astonished. People’s familiarity with Cincinnati Inc. and the company’s understanding of fabrication made the conversations easy.
As for conversations about possibility? Those still come easy, too. But the path there may be a bit longer – and rougher around the edges – than many realize.
About the Author: Fiona Soltes is a longtime freelance writer based just outside Nashville, Tenn. Her regular clients represent a variety of sectors, including fleet, engineering, technology, logistics, business services, disaster preparedness and material handling. Prior to her freelance career, Soltes spent seven years as a staff writer for The Tennessean, a daily newspaper serving Nashville and the surrounding area.
In Some Industries, 3-D Printing Has Already Moved on Down the Road
No, the experts say – we won’t be printing spare parts from the back of a utility truck any time soon, due to cost, time and practicality considerations. But 3-D printing is making definite strides elsewhere.
Surgeons in numerous areas have begun using 3-D printing to provide new perspectives and practice for particular procedures. These might include, for example, the replication of a baby’s heart or skull. Training on the printed parts can reduce the time the child would have to spend under anesthesia.
Phoenix-based Local Motors (www.localmotors.com) is working toward the creation of a 3-D printed car that will exceed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards by 2017. Partners include IBM, integrating Internet of Things technology through IBM Watson; Siemens' Solid Edge to provide CAD modeling; global design firm IDEO to “renew” Local Motors Labs (the company’s small-footprint micro-factories are aimed at sustainable, community-based vehicle development); and SABIC to improve materials.