The consumer 3D printing revolution is underway, and mainstream media is starting to take note. MakerBot – a company that produces 3D printers for consumers and small businesses – has seen a veritable PR explosion in the last two years or so. According to data from Google Trends, searches for MakerBot went from almost none in February, 2009 to a new peak in May 2013, which Google’s keyword tool estimates at 165,000 searches per month. If this growth trend continues, MakerBot is shaping up to be a household name.
If you’re wondering why MakerBot is getting so much press, it’s because they make an affordable desktop 3D printer that lets consumers “print” just about any 3D object they can imagine…which brings us to auto parts.
Why Buy Replacement Parts When You Can Print Them?
For argument’s sake, let’s say that someone steals the running pony emblem off your Ford Mustang’s fender. If you’re like most people, you’ll probably go to your local Ford dealership (or search online) and buy a replacement.
However, if you have your own 3D printer, you can download this 3D rendering of the Mustang running horse emblem and print out a replacement yourself. Granted, the replacement might not be the same as the factory part, but it’s awfully close…and that’s just using today’s technology.
Fast-forward 10 years and it’s likely consumers will be able to purchase affordable 3D printers that can create parts that look resemble any number of parts created with traditional manufacturing. You’ll be able to print out simple replacement parts like emblems, shift knobs, and trim panels, as well as more complex parts like electric motors or a replacement fuel pump. You’ll just need the 3D rendering files and the raw materials.
Home 3D Renderings Are Getting Easier Too
Currently, 3D renderings are the biggest obstacle to home 3D printing. If you wanted to print out a replacement window handle, for example, you would need to carefully draft a 3D model of the handle before you could print a replacement.
However, new technology promises to solve this problem too. In addition to designing affordable 3D printers, companies like MakerBot are also busy developing affordable 3D scanners.
If you owned your own 3D scanning machine, for example, you could quickly glue your broken window handle back together (just so it would stay whole), put it in the scanning machine, and press a button. The scanner would measure the exact shape and dimensions of the handle – or whatever object you place inside the scanner – and create a 3D file that is an exact representation of the handle.
In other words, if you owned both a scanner and a printer, you could just design and print whatever replacement part you need.
Will We Really Be Printing Our Own Auto Parts?
All this exciting talk of new technology aside, it’s fair to wonder just how many consumers will be printing out their own replacement parts.
Between the expense of buying your own 3D printer, 3D scanner, and printing materials – and the complexity of learning to use all this stuff effectively – it’s likely that consumers will continue to buy replacement parts the old fashioned way for the foreseeable future. What’s more, the cost of printing your own 3D part is often higher than the cost of buying a replacement from a dealership.
Still, replacement auto parts will be printed. Replacement trim panels, for example, can be printed using existing technology. Classic car collectors and restorers will likely print their own parts when replacements are impossible to find. Customizers and tuners will use 3D printing to create their own custom emblems, trim panels, and parts.
What’s more, as the cost of 3D printing continues to fall, the pressure will be on dealers and parts manufacturers to reduce their pricing. Even if you don’t bother to print your own parts, you’ll likely benefit from the technology by paying less for parts in the future.
While the future is notoriously difficult to predict, it’s safe to say that 3D printing technology is going to alter the auto parts industry. The only question is, how much?
Author Jason Lancaster is the founder of 3DCarParts.org, a soon-to-launch website that will offer downloadable 3D plans for auto parts. When Jason isn’t writing about 3D printing, he’s writing for Anderson Ford Motorsports, a website that offers performance parts for Fox body Mustangs.
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