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How is 3D printing used in the automotive industry?

For the past few decades, 3D printing in the automotive industry was primarily used by carmakers to create automotive prototypes to check their form and fit. Is it still so today? What are the other applications of the 3D printing technologies that could benefit the industry?

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Electric cars and self-driving cars have already become a part of our lives, as well as cloud-to-car mapping systems and driver behavior monitoring systems which are valued by drivers and insurance companies alike. The dynamic economic environment and more and more demanding consumers are making automakers look for new opportunities and materials to catch up with other industries. This is an environment where necessity breeds innovation.

Deloitte University experts recently shared how additive manufacturing (AM) technologies, commonly known as 3D printing, and their advances “have transformed the potential ways in which products are designed, developed, manufactured, and distributed”.

Impact of 3D printing in the automotive industry

For the past few decades, 3D printing in the automotive industry was primarily used by carmakers to create automotive prototypes to check their form and fit. The first technology for building parts was selective laser sintering or binder jetting. This allowed automakers to create aesthetically pleasant parts, but they were weak and could not be used long.

According to, today there are more robust technologies for automotive 3D printing, such as fused filament fabrication (FFF), which can be used not only for the production of prototypes but also for end-use parts.

3D printing for automotive parts can be a game-changer in the industry. The Global Automotive Outlook 2017 projects that “the global automotive industry is set to reach 114 million in worldwide sales annually by 2024”. This market has very high barriers of entry as it is dominated by just a few OEMs.

The parts and accessories market looks different. There are a lot of large scale and smaller players and the competition there is very high. It is projected that this market will reach around US$ 17 Bn by the end of 2025.

And, last but not least, according to Machine Design, consumption of 3D printing materials by the automotive industry will reach around $530 million by 2021.

Core applications of additive manufacturing (AM) in the automotive industry

Design and concept of communication High detail, smooth and accurate 3D printed scale models are very often used in the automotive industry to demonstrate designs and concepts of new vehicles. The reason is simple – using CAD models alone is not effective enough to define possible design problems. Such models are also used for the aerodynamic testing of new models.
Prototyping validation Like in many other industries, prototyping is a very important part of the manufacturing process in the automotive sector. 3D printing allows for rapid prototyping in the pre-manufacturing stage. Using AM now is one of the most popular ways to validate a prototype – from a small quickly printed detail to a high detail full-scale part suitable for performance validation and testing.
Preproduction sampling and tooling The specialists of 3D hubs regard this application as the most promising. 3D printing can be used to make molds and thermoforming tools, rapid manufacturing of grips, jigs, and fixtures. This allows automakers to produce samples and tools at low costs and to eliminate future losses in production when investing in high-cost tooling.
Customized parts Additive manufacturing is used by automotive enterprises to tailor the parts to specific vehicles (making them custom and lightweight) or even drivers (e.g. seats for racing cars). This is especially useful when the cost of such unique components is justified by a substantial improvement in vehicle performance.

As we see, 3D printing can be a key to car model evaluation and cost-saving for automakers. What else can it do for this industry?





Advantages of 3D printing in the automotive industry

Printing solutions for the automotive industry provide benefits that can be easily evaluated in terms of performance characteristics. 3D printing can replace expensive and long lead-time CNC production. 3D printed plastic parts are cheaper and their production time in-house is shorter. And this means reductions in production costs, especially when dealing with the manufacturing of complex bodies.

In-house 3D prototyping can also help to control Intellectual Property (IP) infringements or information leaks as everything is produced on-site. 3D prototyping can also significantly reduce turnaround times across all stages of manufacturing allowing more agility. Unlike traditional approaches to vehicle design (this refers both to cars and trucks) where a variety of materials are used, 3D printing in automotive design allows lower consumption of materials and wastage which is beneficial for all stages of manufacturing.

3D printer assisted design in the automotive industry allows designers to try multiple options of the same detail and iterations during the stages of new model development. It brings more flexibility, which results in efficient designs and flexibility in making changes in design throughout the process of model evaluation. This, in turn, helps auto manufacturers stay up to date with market needs and be ahead of the field.

By now, we’ve found out the possibilities and advantages of 3D printing in the automotive industry. But, let’s keep in mind that there are two components of this advantage – 3D printers and software for 3D printing. So what does it look like and how can a company build 3D printing software for the automotive industry?

3D printing software in the automotive industry

3D printing allows for more efficient car model design, prototyping, testing and production using industrial 3D printing software. This software enables designers to create printable designs which are the first crucial step in creating 3D printed automobile parts, and the core of the printing process.

To use all the capabilities of a 3D printer, you need to have 3D printer control software and 3D editors that allow the equipment to perform specific tasks. All the software must comply with certain standards, i.e. it must “grasp” various formats of necessary data input.

As a rule 3D printer software uses:

  • STL language (to describe the surface of the set model triangles are used)
  • X3D language (the count starts from the preset profile, it is built on XML standard)
  • VRML standard (based on triangles that do not have common points)

Before we turn to the off-the-shelf solutions overview, let us point out that custom-built 3D printing software and particularly 3D printing workflow management software is an efficient tool to produce complex 3D components for the automotive industry, both for large OEMs and small companies manufacturing custom cars.

3D printing managed by a software that answers your own specific needs rather than the average of the whole industry can lead to more significant cost savings (personnel costs, assembly costs, inventory costs, etc.) and a substantial decrease in production time. 3D printing software can automate the production process and ensure lean manufacturing.

According to, the key 3D printing management players existing in this market, which in fact is not overcrowded, are:

  • Autodesk

With its market cap of $16.66 billion, this software package offers a couple of products valued by the 3D industry: Netfabb (a software for preparing files for 3D printing) and Project Dreamcatcher (a design program).

Netfabb allows the conversion of 3D models into more complex geometries (for example, lattice-filled shapes) which makes them more lightweight while maintaining structural integrity. Dreamcatcher can generate dozens of geometrically complex versions of a solid shape allowing the selection of shapes that would fit a certain application best.

  • Materialize

With its market cap of $346 million and working with the majority of players in the 3D printing market. This company provides 3D printer manufacturers with print drivers (Build Processor) and a #D printing software suite for managing the overall printing process from model preparation to robotics automation.

  • Stratasys

With a market cap of $1.132 billion it is also a well-known additive manufacturing market player which specializes in automotive applications. This company provides CAD solutions for manufacturing, prototyping, tooling, and production and maintains its own online community for professional designers, engineers, manufacturers, and students.

  • SolidWorks by Dassault Systemes

With a market cap of $20.2 billion it is a 3D CAD software for designing parts and assemblies. SolidWorks product development solutions integrate 3D design with simulation, offering automakers the ability to make parts faster and cheaper.

  • Siemens

Holding a market cap of $87.34 billion it also has some CAD tools for 3D printing, such as Siemens SolidEdge and NX. SolidEdge parametric solid modeling software is intended to design individual components and assemblies. NX is used by the automotive industry to create entire environments, i.e. to design parts and to simulate the part behavior, analyze the elements and prepare them for manufacturing.

  • PTC

Having a market cap of $5.49 billion also offers mid-level 3D CAD software and solutions intended for parts design, such as Creo software for parametric CAD modeling. Though this company is much smaller than the “monsters” of the industry, PTC is among the four leading developers of CAD software.

In addition, it should be mentioned that there are a handful of successful startups and small software developing companies that offer paid and open-source 3D CAD products.

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3D Printing in Automotive Industry