How metal 3D printing is changing custom cars

Posted on Jul 23, 2017 by

From the moon to your garage, this is how revolutionary 3D metal printing will change future cars and bring mass customisation to the people

audi 3d metal printing

’s lunar rover featured wheels that cost AED13,000 each with a wall thickness of just 1mm

Thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line first there was mass production. Now there is mass customisation. Markets such as the Middle East where customers love individuality and unique, personal touches in their cars, be they special wheel finishes, racing stripes, custom stitching or unique paintjobs, individual customisation in cars is about to be revolutionised thanks to advances in the smart car factory and new developments in 3D printing.

“This is a dream of every engineer, and this is a game changer,” said Harald Eibisch, an inventor with three patents to his name and casting engineer at Audi, speaking to Auto Middle East in Barcelona at the 2018 Audi Summit.

“We all know about 3D printing already, but in plastics,” Eibisch said. “Now this, this is metal 3D printing… It’s very different to plastics, because you need more energy to melt these materials. “

audi 3d metal printing

Metal 3D printing works by melting metal powder in layers as thin as a human hair

Eibisch and his team use cutting edge technology to start with very small metal powder particles, each only one human hair-width thin, so 20 to 60 microns thin, in aluminium for example.

“This is hard to manufacture, and not that cheap,” explained Eibisch, “But it’s getting into serial production.”

Beginning with one 50-micron thin layer of powder on a base plate, a 700-watt industrial laser melts the powder particles together, layer by layer.

“For maybe a 300mm part you need about 6,000 layers,” said Eibisch. “So 20 layers per millimeter, which takes a long time to melt. But you can produce very complex, geometrical parts.

You have all the complexity you can imagine. It’s called bionic design. Like the structure of a tree…

Right now the technology is slow and expensive so it takes around three days per part. In the industry they still call it industrial 3D metal printing, because it’s still used for B-to-B, for tooling purposes and rapid prototyping.

Eibisch added: “For serial production parts… To be honest, it’s still very exclusive. We are now searching for the right position, the right part in the car, maybe a smaller part that we can 3D print in the car – I call it, and maybe it’s a new term, the ‘car tattoo’.

“You want to individualise the car, so let’s say you scan your fingerprint, and then you can put your fingerprint somewhere in the car, in metal, in silver, or in gold – that can be done, if that’s what you want. In the future mass customisation will be possible – with 3D metal printing every car can be made different.”

It will also affect car design, dramatically, because right now cars have very traditional, hard, sharp edges. 

“Because you are free,” Eibisch said. “You have all the complexity you can imagine. It’s called bionic design. Like the structure of a tree, or whatever. Sometimes it’s a silly structure, but everything has a sense, a point. These shapes come from the computer – the algorithm simply calculates that a certain shape is optimal, and it ends up looking like something nature would make. And we can produce every metal, if you want, steel, aluminium, titanium, nickel, cobalt, you know…

“The challenge is to make this technology cheaper, but not for mass production use, but rather for mass customisation. For exclusivity…

audi 3d metal printing

The challenge with metal 3D printing for now is cost and time – it can take up to three days to print a single part

Eibisch and his team even left the mark of 3D metal printing on the surface of the moon.

“We did the lunar rover. We shot it to the moon,” he said.

“There are quite a few rovers on the moon, you know, Chinese, American, Russian… But nobody has ever shot a private-equity rover to the moon, and we designed it, developed it, printed it, with autonomous drive, and quattro.

“I think it’s incredible. I’m a car manufacturer, and here I am shooting parts to the moon. You can bet I will put my fingerprint into a car, if I’m shooting it to the moon. And when it drives through the dust of the surface, as the wheel rolls every 30 centimetres, my fingerprint on the moon…

“Even for you as a customer, you benefit, because 3D metal printing means we can afford to produce very sophisticated aluminium and titanium parts in every car in the future.

Sp will you be able to go to Eibisch and dream up an entire 3D metal printed car just like ‘nature’ intended?

“Not the whole car,” he said.

“Well… We can do it… We can do it, but it’s not cheap. If you bring enough money with you, we can do it…”

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