10 Exciting Examples of 3D Printing in the Automotive Industry in 2021

28 May 2019
Automotive-line

This article was updated in May 2021

The automotive industry is facing demands on all fronts: the demand for newer, better-performing vehicles, as well as the need to optimise production and streamline supply chains and logistics. One technology that is helping to meet these challenges is 3D printing. 

3D printing is increasingly being explored across all areas of automotive production. Aside from its extensive use for rapid prototyping, the technology is also being used to produce tooling and, in some cases, end parts.

With the range of automotive 3D printing applications continuing to expand, below are some of the most promising examples of automotive companies using the technology to enhance their production. 

1. Porsche’s 3D-printed custom seats

3d bucket seat 1
[Image credit: Porsche]

Porsche has recently introduced a new concept for sports car seating that leverages 3D printing and lattice design. 

The new seats feature polyurethane 3D-printed central seat and backrest cushion sections, which can be customised by three firmness levels: hard, medium and soft. 

With its personalised seating, the German automaker is taking cues from the motorsport sector, where customised driver-specific seat fitting is a norm.

Porsche plans to 3D print 40 prototype seats for use on European race tracks as early as May 2020, with customer feedback being used to develop the final street-legal models for mid-2021.

Down the line, Porsche wants to expand seat customisation beyond firmness and colour by personalising the seat to customer’s specific body contour. 3D printing currently remains the only technology that can enable this level of customisation.

2. 3D printing for automotive brackets

rolls royce 3d printing metal
[Image credit: Rolls Royce]

Brackets are small and rather mundane parts, which were difficult to optimise in the past, when engineers were constrained by traditional manufacturing methods. Today, engineers can design optimised brackets and bring these designs to life with the help of 3D printing. 

Rolls Royce has recently showcased the capabilities of 3D printing for brackets. The company showed off the large batch of DfAM-optimised and 3D-printed automotive metal parts, many of which look to be brackets. 

Cost savings, faster production and design optimisation are typically the key reasons to use AM for brackets. 

In the Rolls Royce’ example, the team was able to incorporate some really cool features into parts, including the 3D-printed brand name and a QR code, along with numbers to identify the specific, unique, part. 

Adding these features during the manufacturing process is something that can only be achieved with digital manufacturing, as no subtractive method could ever compete in terms of the production cost and time.

Read also: Application Spotlight: 3D-Printed Brackets

3. Ford 3D prints parts for high-performance Mustang Shelby GT500

Ford Motor Company is one of the earliest adopters of 3D printing, having purchased the third 3D printer ever made some 30 years ago. 

Ford, which opened its Advanced Manufacturing Center last year, has made steps to integrate 3D printing into its product development cycle. Now, the company is looking to use the technology for manufacturing applications.  

Its latest vehicle, the 2020 Shelby GT500, is one example of this. Due to go on sale later this year, the 2020 Shelby GT500 is reportedly the most aerodynamically advanced Mustang to date. 

Virtual design testing was a key part of the design process for the high-performance vehicle. Using virtual testing, more than 500 cooling and aerodynamic 3D designs were analysed to enable the team to reach its downforce, braking and cooling targets.

Once the most promising designs were identified, Ford’s engineering team used 3D printing to create and test prototypes. For instance, the team printed and tested over 10 designs for front splitter wickers, which they were able to simultaneously send out for test evaluation.

Ford HVAC Lever Arm 3D-printed using Carbon's DLS technology
Ford's HVAC Lever Arm 3D-printed using Carbon's DLS technology [Image credit: Ford]

In addition to using 3D-printed prototypes for design validation and functional testing, the upcoming 2020 Shelby GT500 will also feature two structural 3D-printed brake components. These components were created using Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis (DLS) 3D printing technology and EPX (epoxy) 82 material, and have passed all of Ford’s performance standards and requirements.

With these applications, it’s clear that Ford is laying the foundation to be able to do some pretty impressive things with additive manufacturing. 

“Additive manufacturing is going to continue to be ingrained more and more into the daily part of what we do as a business,” Ford’s Technical Leader of AM Technologies, Harold Sears, recently explained in AMFG’s Expert Interview series. ”Instead of being an exception to the norm, it’s going to be much more accepted as the way it’s done.”

Looking ahead, it will be exciting to see how Ford continues to leverage the capabilities of 3D printing to further enhance the production of its vehicles.

4. Volkswagen Autoeuropa: 3D-printed manufacturing tools

3D-printed wheel protection jig
Volkswagen Autoeuropa uses Ultimaker's 3D printers to create jigs and fixtures for its assembly line [Image credit: Ultimaker]

While prototyping remains the primary application of 3D printing within the automotive industry, using the technology for tooling is rapidly catching on. 

One exciting example of this is Volkswagen, which has been using 3D printing in-house for a number of years. 

In 2014, the company began to pilot Ultimaker’s desktop 3D printers to produce tooling equipment at the Volkswagen Autoeuropa factory in Portugal. Since the success of the pilot, Volkswagen has switched its tooling production almost entirely to 3D printing.

Using the technology for this application brings a number of advantages. 

Producing its tooling internally reduces tool production costs for the car manufacturer by 90% — and cuts lead times from weeks to just a few days. To take one example, a tool like a liftgate badge would reportedly take 35 days to develop using traditional manufacturing and cost up to €400. With 3D printing, the same tool can be produced in four days at a cost of just €10. 

Using 3D printing for tooling is said to have saved Volkswagen nearly €325,000 in 2017, whilst improving ergonomics, productivity and operator satisfaction. 

When it comes to manufacturing aids, 3D printing is rapidly growing as an alternative to more established ways of manufacturing tools. In a few years, we’ll likely see more automotive OEMs switching to 3D-printed tooling to improve the efficiency of their production and the performance of their tools. 

Read also: 6 Ways to Improve Production Efficiency with 3D Printed Jigs and Fixtures

5. 3D-printed lug nuts that save car wheels from thieves

3d printed wheel locks by ford and eos
[Image credit: Ford Motor Co.]

How to stop thieves from stealing car wheels? Ford is answering that question with a program in Europe to 3D print custom locking wheel lug nuts for cars that are more resistant to theft.

Normally, cars will have a single locking lug nut per wheel to prevent its removal without the special key attached to the lug wrench. But these can be defeated, so Ford is 3D printing patterns for its locks that can’t be cloned as easily.

Using 3D printers from EOS, Ford creates locks using a custom pattern for each customer. Using a sound wave pattern from a simple sentence, it’s possible to create a completely unique pattern that provides an added layer of security in a similar fashion to fingerprint recognition.

Once designed, the lock and the key are 3D-printed as a single stainless steel part. After cutting the two apart, they need only a little polishing to work. 

The advantage of these locks is that they are virtually impossible to clone. With unevenly spaced ribs inside the nut and indentations that wide the deeper they go in, it’s impossible for thieves to make a wax impression of these locks without breaking the wax. 

Making wheels more secure and offering more product personalisation are further proof that 3D printing is a game-changer for car production. 

6. Local Motors & XEV: on the road towards 3D-printed cars?

The bottom half of the 3D-printed autonomous vehicle, Olli
The bottom half of Olli, the 3D-printed autonomous shuttle [Image credit: Local Motors]

While still some way away, a number of companies are striving to make fully 3D-printed cars a reality. Local Motors, based in Arizona, is one company with a goal to 3D printing entire vehicles possible. 

The company made a splash in 2014 when it announced what it claimed to be the first-ever 3D-printed electric car — Strati — at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS). The car was manufactured in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Cincinnati, Inc.

Two years later, Local Motors unveiled Olli, a 3D-printed, autonomous electric shuttle designed for local, low-speed transportation. The shuttle has been designed primarily for use in urban centres in cities, business and university campuses and hospitals.

So how has the company achieved this?

Local Motors used some of the world’s largest 3D printers — ORNL’s Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) and Thermwood’s Large Scale Additive Manufacturing (LSAM) machines — to produce most of Olli’s components, including the roof and lower body of the vehicle. 

Similarly, Strati was printed using Cincinnati, Inc.’s large-scale 3D printer, and took only 44 hours to complete. The wheels and hubcaps of the car were produced using a direct metal 3D printing process. 

Since Olli was first introduced, Local Motors has tested over 2,000 combinations of printing material and fortifying additives, and is now able to print the entire minibus in roughly 10 hours. 

Local Motors attributes its success to its ‘digital vehicle manufacturing model’. This business model enables the company to bring products to market in an entirely new way by co-creating new designs with a global community of experts. The company uses digital manufacturing technologies, like 3D printing, to manufacture and assemble vehicles in local microfactories. 

3D printing is a natural fit to this distributed manufacturing model, as it provides a way to quickly iterate designs, customise parts and products on an as-needed basis, saving resources and reducing the need to keep the inventory.

While it will take some time to see fully 3D-printed vehicles on the roads, projects like Local Motors’ Olli could take us one step closer to that exciting possibility.

Local Motors is not the only company pursuing 3D-printed cars. Similarly, Italian automaker, XEV, is developing a low-speed electric LSEV car with the help of 3D printing.

Using large-format FDM technology and four different grades of polyamide and TPU, the company is able to reduce its production costs by 70% and take advantage of the lightweighting 3D printing offers. 

The finished LSEV weighs only 450 kilograms and features just 57 plastic components, meaning it can be produced in a matter of days. XEV has also made the decision to produce 2,000 of its own large-format extrusion 3D printers to use inside its factories for production.

While mass production of the vehicle will begin later this year, pre-orders have already been made by Italian postal service, Post Italiane, who has commissioned 5,000 customised vehicles for its operations.

7. Greater customisation with 3D printing

With the growing demand for customised products and personalised experiences, automakers are increasingly offering their customers the ability to customise their vehicles. 

One way to make this customisation economically viable is with 3D printing. 

Japan’s oldest car manufacturer, Daihatsu, launched a vehicle customisation project for its Copen car model in 2016. 

In partnership with Stratasys, Daihatsu customers can design and order custom 3D-printed panels for their front and rear bumpers, with a choice of more than 15 base patterns in 10 different colours. 

The customised parts are printed with ASA, a durable and UV-resistant thermoplastic, using Stratasys’ Fortus 3D printers. The ability to produce personalised, one-off designs quickly and cost-effectively was one of the key reasons for choosing 3D printing over traditional processes.

In Europe, Volkswagen is now implementing HP’s Metal Jet technology with an eye towards customised metal parts such as tailgates, gear-shift knobs and key rings. 

The company plans to give its customers the option of adding individualised lettering to these components. Volkswagen also notes that these personalised components will serve as a proof of concept for developing 3D-printed structural parts for its cars within the next two to three years.  

One advantage of using 3D printing for customisation is that it allows automakers to reduce lead times and production costs for low-volume parts. This is partly because the technology eliminates the need to create individual tooling aids for each personalised part — a prospect that would be financially unfeasible. 

Going forward, automakers will still need to develop more use cases for customised 3D-printed components to go beyond simple trim parts. That said, as the technology advances, the possibilities for car customisation with 3D printing look set to expand at a much greater pace over the next few years.

Read also: 3D Printing and Mass Customisation: Where Are We Today?

8. Chasing victory: 3D printing for motorsports

Volkswagen Motorsport ID. R Pikes Peak car tested in the wind tunnel
Volkswagen Motorsport's I.D. R Pikes Peak racing car is designed using over 2000 3D-printed parts for testing [Image credit: Volkswagen]

In Formula One racing, how a race car performs will often mean the difference between a win or a loss. However, engineering a successful race car is a challenge, not least because of the high costs involved and the rapid development cycle required.  

Wind tunnel testing is one of the essential stages of the race car development process. 

Automakers use wind tunnels to verify and adjust the aerodynamic properties of a race car.  During the wind tunnel testing stage, a model of a car is placed on a treadmill to test how the car will perform in a simulated racing environment.

Currently, 3D printing is most commonly used within motorsports to create parts to be tested out on this replica race car. For example, Swiss Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team is reported to have used a 60% scale model of a Formula 1 race car, with many of its components 3D printed with SLS and SLA technologies. 

Engineers at Sauber are able to print parts like front wings, brake ducts, suspension and engine covers much faster and with greater design flexibility than traditional manufacturing would allow. 

Another example comes from Volkswagen Motorsport, which used 3D printing for the development of its electric I.D. R Pikes Peak race car. Having only eight months to develop the car, the Volkswagen team bet on 3D printing to speed up the process and meet its development deadlines.  

The technology was used to produce parts for the 50% scale model of the I.D. R Pikes Peak car. Around 2,000 individual parts for the wind tunnel model have been manufactured, with parts produced within a few days instead of the weeks it would take with CNC machining or moulding. 

By enabling an extremely flexible and very rapid development process, 3D printing has helped Volkswagen Motorsport to get the car on the road on schedule. And this effort was recently rewarded: just last year, the I.D. R Pikes Peak race car set a new record for the hill climb in Pikes Peak racing. 

With proven effectiveness in reducing development times, 3D printing is now making its way into end-part applications that could offer racing teams significant performance advantages.

9. 3D printing spare parts for classic cars

3D-printed replacement parts for Porsche classic cars
Porsche 3D prints multiple spare parts for its classic cars [Image credit: Porsche]

Spare parts are yet another application of 3D printing in automotive — and one Porsche Classic is taking full advantage of. 

The division of the German car company supplies parts for its vintage and out-of-production models, and is using 3D printing to produce rare, low-volume spare parts for its older inventory. 

Many of these parts are no longer in production, and the tooling required to manufacture them either don’t exist or are in poor condition. Manufacturing new tooling aids with traditional methods is inherently cost-prohibitive, particularly considering the low volumes in question.  

With a view to solving these challenges, Porsche Classic has begun to 3D print these parts (in metal and plastic) on demand.

The printing process involves melting the metal powder (or sintering for plastics) with a high-energy laser beam in a precise pattern, thus building the three-dimensional object up one layer at a time. The advantage is that parts can be made without any additional tools and only when needed, helping Porsche to save on tooling and storage costs associated with making these spares using conventional methods. 

3D printing parts that are rarely ordered or stopped being produced is a growing trend within the automotive supply chain. Mercedes-Benz Trucks, Volkswagen and BMW are also embracing 3D printing for this application, enabling the carmakers to cut costs, increase operational efficiency and optimise inventory. 

Read also: How 3D Printing is Transforming the Spare Parts Industry

10. Will future motorcycles be 3D-printed?

So far, we’ve seen companies 3D printing components for cars and even entire car bodies — but what about motorcycles?

While there are no commercially available 3D-printed bikes on the road yet, there are a number of projects that offer a glimpse into what could be the future of motorcycle production. 

APWORKS’ Light Rider is one of the most well-known examples of the potential of using 3D printing for motorcycle production. 

The German company unveiled the 3D-printed, topologically optimised, electric motorcycle in 2016. The motorcycle also showcases the properties of APWORKS’ proprietary Scalmalloy material. Using Scalmalloy, the 3D-printed motorcycle frame is 30% lighter than its traditionally made counterparts.

While APWORKS has seen huge success with the project, with a great deal of customers wanting to purchase the Light Rider, being able to make production commercially viable remains a challenge. 

Another, more recent, example of a 3D-printed motorbike comes from German FDM 3D printer manufacturer, BigRep.

Almost all components of BigRep's NERA motorcycles have been 3D printed [Image credit: BigRep]

The company’s NERA motorcycle — a fully functional prototype — took just 12 weeks to produce, and was designed to demonstrate the capabilities of 3D printing. 

To create it, BigRep used its large-scale 3D printers and a range of materials including PLA, Pro FLEX (a TPU-based flexible material) and the engineering-grade ProHT filament. With the exception of electronics, all of the 15 parts were 3D printed, including the rims, frame, airless tires, seat and a flexible bumper. 

While these and other projects offer an exciting glimpse into the potential of 3D printing for motorcycles, it will be quite some time before them on the road. But 3D printing’s ability to create lightweight parts, enhance performance and enable faster and cheaper production makes us excited about its future potential for this application.

Driving the future of automotive production 


While this list showcases the key application areas for 3D printing within automotive, it only scratches the surface of its possibilities. However, as automakers recognise the potential of the technology to provide a leg up on the competition, the number of applications will surely expand.

Looking into the future of 3D printing in automotive, the technology will continue to permeate into product development, production, assembly and the supply chain, enabling new designs, competitive business models, and, ultimately, superior vehicles.

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