3D Printing Is Going to Shake up the Parts and Accessories Market
3D printing has been a hot topic in the tech community since the expiration of key patents in the late 2000s opened the market to relentless downward price pressure on thermoplastic printers. Companies like Makerbot sprung up in the US to take advantage of the market opportunity, and manufacturers in China quickly followed with lower-cost machines that rapidly filled the consumer market. Much of this early movement in the 3D printing market was focused on the consumer world, but in the last year or two that has started to change and it’s now only a matter of time until the automotive parts and accessories market takes notice.
Recent Changes in the 3D Printing Landscape
Three recent developments in the 3D printing space have changed the equation for businesses looking at 3D printing to replace traditional manufacturing for certain application:
- Additional patent expirations and lower-cost manufactured parts have brought the cost of resin (DLP) and nylon/metal sintering (SLS) printers far below where they were just a few years ago. Smaller format resin printers in the consumer space are now available at a $500 price point with larger format printers just around the corner. Laser sintering for nylon and even metal powders is also about to drop in cost by an order of magnitude with new offerings from Form Labs, Markforged, and Desktop Metal in the 2019-2020 timeframe.
- The large-format “industrial grade” printing space used to be the sole domain of Stratsys, 3D Systems, and HP. But a slew of new entrants in this market segment like Tractus and CoLiDo are now offering machines with build volumes of a cubic meter or more at a price point that small businesses can actually afford. Large prints that used to require expensive outsourcing or purchase of $250K+ printers can now be made in-house without breaking the bank.
- 3D scanning has not only become more precise, but also more affordable over the last few years as well. Both fixed and handheld scanners are now available that offer precision in the range of 0.1mm for parts and assemblies up to a meter across. Although there is still a ways to go in hardware cost, it’s no longer out of range for businesses needing to get accurate models of existing objects without paying an engineer to recreate them from scratch.
The combination of these changes means that a shop can now get set up with 3D scanning, large-format printing, and high-detail printing for on-demand part production at a cost of about $50k in comparison the $500k or more it would have cost a few years ago.
Benefits for Parts and Accessories
Traditional automotive parts and accessories processes are highly dependent on traditional manufacturing, ordering, and distribution to get items from a factory to a distribution center to a dealership or end customer. On-demand and on-premises manufacturing offers several key benefits over traditional pipelines:
- First, printing parts and accessories avoids distribution challenges almost entirely. As long as raw materials are on-hand, items don’t need to be shipped anywhere, eliminating the costs and timing delays of traditional logistics paths. Initially, this benefit will be minor since 3D printing is a slow process that can easily take several days to produce a large part, but the entire concept of waiting for a part that is on backorder or out of production entirely could become a thing of the past.
- Next, on-demand production means that OEMs, dealers, and resellers can manage with near-zero inventory of parts and accessories on hand. As any retailer knows, inventory costs kill operating margins and any path that leads to “just in time” items is a financial win. 3D Printing provides a path to that goal, provided production capacity is enough to scale to normal demand levels.
- Additionally, in an on-demand manufacturing world, there simply is no concept of a part or accessory being “out of production”. As long as a 3D model exists, a part can be created whenever needed, whether today or fifty years from now, long after traditional bulk manufacturing has ceased to make sense. This is a dream come true for enthusiasts with older vehicles and the businesses that support them.
- Finally, perhaps the biggest benefit of additive manufacturing in general is that you are not locked in to exactly one design/color/pattern for items. With a minimal amount of work, truly customized parts and accessories can be offered to customers willing to spend a bit more money on things like custom text, logos, and added style features. Customization means both happier customers and increased per-item margins.
These benefits have been clear to a number of smaller customization shops for a few years now, with progressive upgraders already starting to print parts and accessories for non-critical applications in cars, trucks, and motorcycles. With new developments in 3D printing, this segment of the market is poised to expand rapidly.
With all the upsides of 3D printing-based manufacturing for parts and accessories, it’s easy to assume that this new market area will be a panacea for just about everything. The truth is that even with new advancements in hardware capabilities, 3D printing still has many limitations that need to be considered.
- Not everything can or should be 3D printed. Additive manufacturing technologies generally result in parts that lack the strength, durability, and finish quality of molded, cast, or milled parts. As a result, critical components like engine or driveline parts are a poor fit for 3D printing, but “fit and finish” items like dashboard panels, bezels, adapters, brackets, and control knobs are a good fit.
- 3D Printed items are only as good as the models on which they are based. Low quality models with poor tolerances not adapted for 3D printing will result in parts and accessories that require a lot of post-printing work to make ready. Sales outlets for parts and accessories will likely need to work closely with OEMs to either obtain or create print-ready models consistent with the quality of the brand.
- Despite the common conception of 3D printers being near-magical devices that pump out flawless objects around the clock, the reality is that additive manufacturing ends up not only requiring a significant amount of labor, but also requiring specialized labor. From troubleshooting and repairing printers when they break (often) to managing printer fleets to designing and slicing models specifically meant for optimal printing, labor and expertise can easily become constraints for companies looking to leverage 3D printing.
Even with the limitations of additive manufacturing, 3D printing stands to be a significant driver of innovation in the automotive parts and accessories space in the coming years. Manufacturers, upfitters, dealers, and customizers that take advantage of what’s possible will no doubt reap financial and customer loyalty benefits as the technology matures.