With more and more focus being shifted on sustainable energy sources, investment in electric vehicles is at all-time highs. Of course, most of these vehicles are still conventionally manufactured, but OEMs have slowly started to employ the use of additive manufacturing technology in a bid to cut both costs and lead times.
Tesla goes additive
The biggest name in the electric vehicle market is undoubtedly Tesla. The Musk-owned firm has previously used FDM 3D printing to produce spare parts for the Tesla Model Y. Specifically, it was a Youtube content creator by the name of Munro Live that unintentionally caught the inconspicuous part in a teardown video.
Having inspected the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) airbox of the car, a large injection molded component, the engineer making the video spotted what was quite clearly a 3D printed circular part. This was given away by the characteristic layer lines that 3D printing leaves behind. Although unconfirmed, it looked like 3D printing was actually used as a quick fix patch job to address a manufacturing fault in the Model Y.
Delving deeper, it is possible that Tesla missed a fault in the Model Y’s HVAC unit and started manufacturing the vehicle before it was fixed. By the time the company’s engineers spotted the issue, it is possible that it may have been too late, with hundreds of HVAC units already manufactured and ready to go. At that point, it is indeed easier to just 3D print a missing part of the vehicle rather than establish an entirely new injection molding production line from scratch, proving 3D printing can have major implications for spare part production in the unlikeliest of scenarios.
Smaller manufacturers, bigger dreams
It’s not just the big names either, as smaller manufacturers have started relying on AM technology to bolster their own workflows. Engineers from UK-based technology startup Scaled recently developed what they are calling the country’s first 3D printed electric vehicle. The buggy goes by the name of Chameleon, and it has a single seat with a completely 3D printed frame.
As it stands, the prototype can muster up a top speed of just 45mph and weighs 150kg in total. It is powered by a Lynch electric motor and also features a number of non-3D printed parts produced by students from a nearby University.
At last year’s CES Show in Las Vegas, Swiss automotive OEM Rinspeed also unveiled its take on a 3D-printed electric car. The vehicle, MetroSnap, is currently a concept and was developed in collaboration with 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys. Interestingly, the sustainable vehicle houses over 30 3D printed automotive parts on the interior and exterior. This includes a number of interior consoles, plug socket fixtures, air vents, lidar screens, display frames, and even a licence plate.
Finally, we also have German 3D printer OEM BigRep, which revealed its own entirely 3D printed autonomous electric podcar back in 2019. The car goes by the name of LOCI, and it is meant to showcase the application of large-format 3D printing in the creation of functional end-use transportation devices. The 3D printed vehicle was also used to debut the company’s Part DNA technology, which integrates NFC chips into the 3D printed shells.
LOCI is home to 14 custom 3D printed parts, and clocks in at 850mm x 1460mm x 2850mm. The largest of the 3D printed components measures 1000 x 600 x 700mm. All the parts in the vehicle were 3D printed using the company’s large-format FFF 3D printers using BigRep’s PRO HT filament. The airless tyres however were 3D printed using TPU polymer. Moreover, the bumpers were fabricated with PLX and the car’s designers chose PA6/66 for the joints in the vehicle.
The future of 3D printing in the EV space
It’s common knowledge at this point that 3D printing provides a whole host of part customization benefits. The technology is great at producing highly complex geometries at low volumes, which is what a lot of smaller-scale EV manufacturers are looking for.
The future will also witness increased collaborations with EV manufacturers and specialised 3D Printing companies. The collaborations would not just focus on design and modelling and would widen to areas of customised tooling, manufacturing, raw material sourcing, pricing etc.
We’ve also seen that Tesla, while much larger, is using additive manufacturing to boost its spare part production capabilities. The lead time advantages of 3D printing are nothing to scoff at, and it seems Elon Musk knows this very well. Looking to the future, we can probably expect to see additive manufacturing uptake increase significantly in the EV space, as it has been doing in the wider automotive sector for a number of years now.