Shops may be printing parts in the near future

Jan. 1, 2020
I realize that almost everyone is at least skeptical and more than likely in total disbelief of the Buck Rogers concept of “printing” a part. 

It is sometime in the not too distant future. A tech is ordering a part using voice-activated software on his smart wristwatch. The voice of the software asks him, “Do you want the part delivered, or would you prefer to print it?” He replies, “Print it.” In about 20 minutes, the EGR filter he ordered is ready. He takes the filter off the printer and installs it on the vehicle.

I realize that almost everyone reading the preceding paragraph is at least skeptical and more than likely in total disbelief of the Buck Rogers concept of “printing” a part.  But I was recently exposed to some technology that leads me to believe that my claim of “sometime in the not too distant future” as it relates to “printing parts” is no wild fantasy.

The occasion was a tour of the new “SEMA Garage,” a state-of-the-art technology center that recently opened. I shared the story last month of witnessing a prototype of a sport crossover that was being scanned and mapped into an incredibly accurate, digitized, three-dimensional CAD display of a vehicle.

But as impressive as that display was, it paled in comparison with what I was exposed to next. I was shown a state-of-the-art 3D printer. The printer was in the final stage of printing an intake manifold. Yes, printing an intake manifold. The engineers that were designing and testing the manifold had dyno'd a previously printed design. They thought that by tweaking a few port dimensions they could increase performance and reduce fuel consumption. 

In my traditional thinking, that meant a trip back to the plant and a couple of weeks work with machinists making a new prototype. In the SEMA Garage, it required only a few keystrokes on the CAD program to change the shape and dimensions of the port and then hit “print.”

In a matter of a few hours, the printer produced a composite prototype of the new design for the manifold. The prototype was then bolted on to the engine and a new dynamometer test was run. That’s right, the printed prototype made from a plastic composite was bolted on to an engine and run for the duration of the two-hour test. Truly mindboggling. I was told the printer was even capable of diagnosing its own failing parts and printing replacements.

Equally mind-blowing as the technology itself is the accessibility and capability of these gadgets. They start at $15,000 and the one I saw set SEMA back about $35,000. I understand that there are models in use capable of printing in sizes as large as an engine block. There are even printers that can print in metal. If that isn’t Buck Rogers, what is?

My opening reference to the concept of printing parts placed it in "the not too distant future." Why am I confident in that assertion? Consider that since 1965, the power of computer processers has doubled every two years while their cost has been reduced by half. Based on this well-established and continuing trend we could see 3D printers in shops before the 2030s. They will cost less than $1,000 and be capable of printing workable parts in less than 30 minutes. Think about how that might impact paths to market and turn the current distribution model on its ear.

I remember being at a GASS Symposium in the late 90’s or just after the turn of the last century. A top executive of one of the major distribution groups was on a panel and was asked about how he thought Internet selling might impact his business. He thought for a moment and said with a smirk, “Given that my customers insist on getting their parts delivered in a half hour, until they figure out how to fax a brake pad to an installer, I’m not worried.”

I wonder if he saw the same demonstration I did, would he be worried now?

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