After last week's news that an entire car body was being produced on a 3D printer, we had an offline discussion with Joris Peels of i.Materialise on what this really meant. Obviously, the mass media would have everyone believe an Entire Car was printed, when in fact it was only the body - and then only for a prototype.
But could cars really be 3D Printed? We think not - at least not the underlying bits, which more than likely are best made in a commodity fashion, not only for cost but for other reasons such as safety testing, etc.
The body, however, is another matter. It's the part people see and touch, the part of the vehicle that most distinguishes it from other vehicles. Similarly, portions of the interior finish and controls could conceivably be customized to the driver's preference. The rest of the car does not require customization and would not benefit from doing so. In fact, it would overly complicate the vehicle's design and testing.
But while some automobile elements could theoretically be custom printed, the next problem is that of design. We cannot expect your average driver to be capable of whipping out a cracking 3D design suitable for printing, particularly on a serious items such as an automobile. Instead, we suggest the driver be presented with a selection of design elements that could be mixed together in an easy way to produce a semi-unique design - which could then be printed.
But even then this limited amount of customization might not lend itself to a 3D printed scenario, as the number of combinations might still be small enough to warrant traditional mass production. Repairs would be somewhat more complex as well.
It will no doubt be some time before the automobile manufacturers must deal with this issue.