There's no question that 3-D printing has a place in the future production of automobiles. But how extensive will that role be, and how will it be achieved?
Those questions are being aggressively pursued by the industry and by academic researchers working with the industry.
Mass-produced 3-D-printed cars are still years away, if they ever become reality, but some vehicle parts such as interior trim pieces are already being produced using the process.
The main current application for 3-D printing in automotive is in the development of prototypes, says the director of McMaster University's Automotive Research and Technology department in Hamilton, Ont.
Prof. Mo Elbestawi says 3-D printing in the prototype stage allows for the use of novel designs, new materials and minimal inventories, and is significantly less costly and time intensive than traditional methods of prototype production.
"It allows the use of the same materials to be used in the final product, thus allowing more realistic testing of that product," says Elbestawi.
Chrysler castings engineer Tom Sorovetz concurs. At the Chrysler Technology Center at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., 11 3-D printers are currently operating under Sorovetz's watchful eye.