While it has already demonstrated immense value across many fields, 3D printing has still not been entirely embraced by the automotive industry. That, however, may all be about to change.

As part of the manufacturing process, 3D printing can help reduce costs enough that major carmakers and other industry participants have started exploring the technology. Electric vehicles (EVs) – one of the more tech-forward fields in the transportation industry – are pushing the technology in a completely new direction.

While most efforts to integrate 3D printing with manufacturing focus on using the technology to substitute certain components and parts during the process, the EV sector takes 3D printing a step further. Most recently, the industry stirred excitement following one company’s announcement that it planned to commence selling 3D-printed vehicles. A success on that scale could transform 3D printing from a luxury to a major necessity across the automotive industry.

From components to complete cars

The automotive industry is no stranger to 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing due to the layered manner in which components are constructed). Late in 2018, BMW announced that it had printed more than one million components, with the automaker applying 3D printing techniques for more than 25 years. Yet, 3D printing is still not completely used for mainstream component production, despite growing momentum in that direction as the technology improves.

For many automakers, 3D printers represent an excellent strategy for prototyping components, constructing full vehicles, and even creating models of new ideas. The sector has obliged, with companies like Stratasys creating tools that employ cutting edge technology for greater ease of use. However, the biggest advantage the technology supplies to automakers is its multifaceted upgrade of the manufacturing process. Principally, it cuts down production time significantly, as parts can be 3D printed (in metal, no less) in a fraction of the time needed for traditional casting and manufacturing. Additionally, 3D printed components tend to be more lightweight and easier to repair.

Other major producers are also exploring the field for new implementations of 3D printing. Daimler, EOS and Premium AEROTEC have partnered to build a fully automated line for serial 3D printing that could be deployed seamlessly in most manufacturing operations.

Nevertheless, the goal – or until recently a pipe dream – of a fully 3D printed vehicle has remained just out of reach, primarily because finding replacements for sensitive components like engine parts is difficult. Now, the EV sector may be on the brink of sparking another wave of innovation.

Italian manufacturer XEV took the industry by storm when it unveiled its design for its LSEV, promises that outside of some key components, the entirety of its vehicle is 3D printed. According to the company, the vehicle has reduced the number of components from 2,000 to slightly over 50 and manages to reduce costs by nearly 70%. Impressively, the car would weigh just under 500kg, which is significantly less than most vehicles on the roads today. XEV also claims that the production time for each car would be reduced from three to five years to just three to 12 months.

XEV isn’t the only company hard at work on a 3D-printed EV. US-based firm Local Motors has been developing a prototype for a self-driven minibus named the Olli, which is meant to help reduce the traffic congestion plaguing many of the world’s largest cities. It’s also 3D-printed, but it is marketed as a public-transit solution as opposed to XEV’s private cars. Local Motors has also noted that it has perfected its 3D printing process to the extent that it can fully manufacture an Olli in just about 10 hours, marking a notable achievement for such a complex task.

It is worth noting that while both the LSEV and the Ollie are almost entirely 3D-printed, they still rely on some traditionally manufactured components. In the LSEV’s case, that is the main chassis, the windows and the car seats. The Olli’s windows are also not 3D-printed, but the rest of the vehicle depends on these rapid advances in printing technology. Moreover, the Olli is not meant to be a replacement for buses and other large vehicles – its top speed is only 40km per hour and it only has roughly 1.5 hours of battery. Even so, it marks an important first step towards constructing more sustainable transportation solutions.

The future is bright, but not here yet

While the LSEV and Olli are promising hints at what the future holds for both 3D printing technology and EVs, they are still first and early attempts. It remains to be seen whether they will be embraced over the long run.

Nevertheless, it’s a promising development, and one that could significantly alter the way we view EV technology and sustainability, and manner by which we handle issues like pollution, traffic congestion, and rapidly expanding urban populations. These projects are likely only the beginning, as well. As 3D printing matures and becomes more viable, we’ll likely see many more disruptive projects emerge.