Car makers have, until now, been forced to rely on the steel-industry to manufacture their products. But the computer sector has devised software that has the potential to transform vehicle making into a truly 21st century technology.
High-tech licence to print vehicles
Car makers have, until now, been forced to rely on the steel industry to manufacture their products.
Mines, steel mills and thousands of factory workers painstakingly assembling heavy-duty steel engines and car bodies defined the auto industry throughout the 20th Century.
But the computer sector has devised software that has the potential to transform vehicle making into a truly 21st century technology. The 3D printing company Stratasys, based in the United States, has developed software capable of printing an entire plastic car body. The prototype car is called the Urbee 2, a version of which was unveiled at this year's Las Vegas car show.
The company uses the latest 3D printing technology to spray molten polymer to build the chassis layer by microscopic layer until it arrives at the finished product in the colour of choice.
The process is referred to as "lights out" construction.
The car designer merely uploads the design of a car part and then leaves the technology to "print" the product.
The initial version of this revolutionary technique still takes about 2,500 hours to create an entire car chassis.
However, the technology is subject to Moore's Law, the theory that computer power approximately doubles every couple of years, rather than the much slower pace of traditional technological change set by the auto industry.
The new generation of plastic printed vehicles would also be far more fuel-efficient than standard cars.
It is, for example, possible to trickle-charge the Urbee overnight with electricity from solar energy. It can run on petrol or ethanol and will achieve about 200 miles per gallon on the motorway and about half that driving in cities while costing about two cents a mile.The entire body and even the glass panels will be 3D printed by Stratasys, it says.
This approach has numerous advantages over conventional car making technologies, as 3D printing not only avoids expensive tooling up to build the car, it also allows designers to seamlessly dovetail last-minute design changes.
But what could be the real game changer for the industry is the potential to create individually designed bespoke vehicles.
Customers could not only specify and chose a colour scheme, they could also have the car body designed to reflect their own personal taste.
The big threat to traditional manufacturers is that the barrier entry for small but innovative car makers such as Tesla has now dropped to a level where the new technology potentially enables them to compete on price in the mass market and to undercut the steel-car builders by significant margins.
The new lightweight technologies also produce vehicles that are far safer than those made by traditional methods.
"As new materials and parts are being introduced by the main manufacturers they are routinely tested to be stronger and safer than the materials and components they are designed to replace," says the German car adhesive manufacturer Henkel spokesman Holger Elfes.
He adds similar materials have already been flight-tested by the aerospace and space industries.
The big question, however, is whether car makers will be able to ditch their existing supply chains and manufacturing processes swiftly enough to ensure that younger, nimbler economies in regions such as Asia and Middle East do not overtake them.
Middle East markets, in particular, are well-suited to solar-charged vehicles. "3D printing, which is largely automated deals directly with the labour cost imbalance between the US and China," says Ron Enderle, the principal analyst at the Silicon Valley based Enderle Group.
But, despite the lip service paid to new energy efficient cars by western governments, the auto industry looks as it may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
Traditional car industry partners such as the steel sector are unlikely to take the switch lying down. Neither are the auto industry workers who could see themselves replaced by computerised printers.
"The auto unions likely won't like this and will try to resist the move, thereby playing into China's hands," says Mr Enderle.
But he adds even the fledgling Chinese car industry may be also be hard put to ditch existing steel-based manufacturing.
"China needs to keep its people working and resists automation like this, they want hand work to keep the people occupied," says Mr Enderle.
"But hand labour can't compete with efficient automation."
However, there is little doubt in Silicon Valley, at least, that the age of 3D printed plastic car is about to dawn.