The future of manufacturing automobiles at large volumes may well depend on the future state of manufacturing technology. Additive manufacturing is the future, its most commonly known to you and I as 3D printing.
3D printing is already being used, albeit in limited small scale capacities, in the automotive industry its used primarily to speed up the design process, improve efficiency and reduce costs. Doing so reduces the need to build expensive tooling required to press whatever needs to be manufactured.
The technology is in the primary stages of its evolution, but constant improvements in processes and materials means the evolution is progressing quickly. Its still a good few years before a 3D printed engine makes it onto your Ford Fiesta but as engineers begin to understand how to manipulate the technology that 3D printed engine may well become envisioned.
Whats holding back the technology from finding a place on the large volume component manufacturing floor space is the limited range of materials available, mainly plastic based composites, and the slow manufacturing process involved.
The University of Warwickshire, based in the UK, has developed a low cost composite material specifically for use in the 3D printing of electronic components that is designed to speed up the process of printing.
European research institutions are looking at the wonder material of the age, Graphene, to form the basis of super-strength thermoplastic components. For now 3D printing relies on materials from the poly-carbonate era.
Lightweight materials are being researched, such as titanium, but its expensive costing $200-400 dollars per kg , however a research company in the UK has claimed to have developed a technique to possibly lower costs by as much as 75%.
The most probable route is the merging of these new and old manufacturing technologies, so called hybrid manufacturing could combine 3D printing with traditional forging and milling techniques.
For now 3D printing, despite being around for over 20 years is still in its infancy. Its a slow forming process, has a limited materials base and is not yet fully compatible or cost effective compared to traditional manufacturing techniques.
Companies like Arizona based, Local Motors, are already pushing the the technology. The company created the worlds first 3D printed car back in July, made from an estimated 20,000 components.
However the automotive industry is keen to develop the technology further beyond Local Motors boundaries, for now it remains limited in use but is seen as a valuable asset in the years to come.