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Keeping Classic Cars Alive with 3D Printed Parts

Finding replacement parts for classic and vintage automobiles has never been easy, but it can now be difficult to source components for mass-produced vehicles built just a decade ago. Vehicle manufacturers usually make sure that they have enough parts on hand to complete authorized repairs, but they rarely make or stock items for cars that are no longer under warranty. This is because most carmakers have adopted the just-in-time manufacturing philosophy pioneered by Toyota, and it has led to a chronic shortage of parts for older cars.

This shift in manufacturing approaches comes at a time when Americans are keeping their cars longer. The average personal vehicle in the United States is now 12.1 years old, which means the average American can expect to find sourcing spare parts a challenge in the years ahead. Market economies tend to react quickly when demand goes unsatisfied, and additive manufacturing companies have stepped up to fill the car parts void.

Enter 3D Printed Car Parts

Finding a replacement part for an old car used to involve scouring classified ads and searching through junkyards, but now vehicle owners can order custom 3D printed parts online or purchase 3D printers to make them at home. These parts are made out of thin layers of silicone, plastic, metal or carbon fiber, and they are just as strong as parts made using more traditional methods. Even engine parts and complex transmission components that are exposed to extreme temperatures can now be 3D printed.

The process begins by using scanning equipment to explore every curve and crevice on a classic car to create a comprehensive digital record of all of its parts and components. These CAD drawings can then be used for restoration work or to make the parts needed to repair crash damage. Classic car owners have discovered that 3D printing can produce items quickly and inexpensively that would once have cost thousands of dollars to make from scratch. And the process is especially useful for making plastic accessories like knobs and handles that break easily and can be very difficult to find. 3D printing can also be used to test the fit of prototype parts and create casting molds.

Replicars vs. High Dollar Originals

While the advent of 3D printing has been a positive boon for classic car collectors and restorers, the people who deal in vehicles that routinely sell for tens of millions of dollars are less enthusiastic about the new approach. The problem is the extreme quality of 3D printed parts makes them virtually indistinguishable from genuine items, which is a problem in an industry where originality is prized and commands a hefty premium.

This has created a situation where an unrestored vehicle that has languished in a barn for decades could be worth more than a similar vehicle that has been painstakingly refinished. In 2012, a totally restored 1935 Duesenberg SSJ that was once owned by the movie star Clark gable was sold for $6.4 million. In 2018, an unrestored 1935 Duesenberg SSJ sold for $22 million. This shows that collectors in this price bracket would rather pay more money for a less impressive survivor than risk buying what has become known in these circles as a “replicar.”

Classic Car Collectors That See the Value

The 3D printers used to make classic car parts are quite sophisticated and beyond the reach of most people, but collectors with deeper pockets have embraced the technology. The former “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno has almost 300 classic cars and motorcycles that are worth more than $50 million, and he uses CAD scanning and 3D printing to make the parts that keep his prized collection running and looking good.

Restorers and collectors are also using 3D printing to create more than just trim and body panels. A 1969 Camaro that was displayed at the SEMA show in Las Vegas in 2019 featured an engine that was designed by Eric Harrell and built on a 3D printer. It took the famed engine builder 72 hours to make the block alone. Other parts of the car, including the front grill and rear light assemblies, were also made on 3D printers.

What Porsche is Doing

Vehicle manufacturers generally use subtractive processes to build cars and parts, but they have turned to additive techniques in recent years to keep costs under control when only small quantities are required. Aston Martin and Jaguar used 3D printers to make parts for reissues of classic models from the 1950s and 1960s, but their efforts pale in comparison to what Porsche is doing.

The German sports car maker turned to 3D printing when their stockpile of parts dwindled to the point where it could no longer satisfy the demands of collectors and restorers. The Stuttgart-based company uses the powder bed fusion process to build parts out of metal and plastic that meets or exceeds OEM standards, and the program is being expanded because customer feedback has been so positive. Parts are currently available for cars including the 964, 959 and 911 Speedster, but that list is expected to soon grow to include virtually all rare and collectible Porches. Other manufacturers that use 3D printing to make parts for cars no longer in production include Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover.

Keeping Classic Cars Alive

Additive processes like composite printing and powder bed fusion are usually associated with cutting-edge prototypes and high-tech industries like aerospace, but the classic car sector shows that this technology can be just as useful to hobbyists and collectors. Laser scanning and 3D printing have made it easy to create even complex replacement parts in days instead of months, and the capabilities of the technology are expected to increase significantly in the coming years while prices fall.

ADDMAN Engineering is at the forefront of this revolution, and our group of more than 20 manufacturing companies is backed by the American Industrial Partners group. If you would like to learn more about additive manufacturing techniques and how they could revolutionize your business, you can call us on (888) 266-1837 or fill out our online form.

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