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Forget Holden and Ford, Australian car manufacturers don't need big factories anymore thanks to 3D printing technology

In the near future, Aussie automotive manufacturers won't need huge factories, thanks to new 3D printing tech.

It’s been five years since the last Holden was built in Australia, but while big-brand visibility might not be the same as it once was with the exit of GM, Ford and Toyota as local mass manufacturers, there’s a growing groundswell of local engineering, modifying, and manufacturing outfits which are leaning on new technologies to do things a little differently.

Prime among these new technologies are 3D printers. Believe it or not, these devices, which are often colloquially associated with printing ornaments and scale models for hobbyists, are being used to revive Australian manufacturing, allowing local outfits to build or heavily modify full-size vehicles. 

And all without the need for an enormous gigafactory the likes of which are now preferred by the Teslas and Toyotas of the world.

Markforged, for example, is a manufacturer of 3D printers with a relatively large presence in Australia. Their most basic model, costing around $30,000, surprisingly fits atop a standard office desk, and allows manufacturers to test, iterate, and make brand new parts which would have been impossible before.

The brand’s printers are used in multiple local automotive brands, particularly start-ups like Fonz Moto (a Sydney-based manufacturer of fully electric motorcycles), automotive restoration shops, and, increasingly, left- to right-hand-drive converters bringing popular models from the US.

Markforged’s representatives said, as an example, American Vehicle Conversions were able to reduce the cost of a heater box in one of its conversions from $17,000 to $2200. Further, the consistency and quality of the parts produced are much higher than previous methods of using fibreglass moulds for right-hand drive versions of dash parts which otherwise don’t exist.

The same can be said for the restoring of classic vehicles, with Markforged noting several situations where classic vehicle restorers had been able to scan and reproduce parts which are no longer built or able to be found, like valve covers, carburettors, or even an entire crankcase. Markforged’s range of printers allow the printing of everything from resin to metals (28 different materials in total) depending on the model. 52x40x40cm is said to be the largest component dimensions for the largest model.

Fonz Moto is a Sydney-based manufacturer of fully electric motorcycles.

Fonz said it uses its small printer to iterate different parts and test pieces on its motorcycles. As an example, the brand was able to add a European Type 2 AC charging socket to one of its models in just two weeks thanks to the ability of the 3D printer to allow them to make a precisely fit piece to add the socket. A process which would have otherwise taken months, according to the brand.

It’s not just small-scale manufacturers either. This technology (which the industry refers to as ‘additive manufacturing’ rather than 3D printing) is helping Australian brands manufacture to a global standard, with more familiar names like Premcar and Walkinshaw using 3D printed products to bring Aussies popular locallymodified utes and other specialty vehicles.

Speaking to CarsGuide, Premcar explained that 3D printing technology was “absolutely” used on models like the Navara Pro-4X Warrior, prototyping everything from wheels, wheelarch flares, brake calipers, to intake ducts and other engine parts for sign-off.

Fonz uses its small printer to iterate different parts and test pieces on its motorcycles.

Bernard Quinn, Premcar’s engineering director said: “From a prototyping point of view it has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. Machine-billet parts which would have cost thousands can now be printed for the cost of plastic filament, which can amount to only a few dollars.”

He explained that while the 3D printing systems at Premcar were extensively used for prototyping operations, the outfit is yet to use the technology for full production parts “but that time is coming”.

“We would like to get to the point where we use high-quality structurally functional metallic composite material 3D printed parts in production. That requires significant investment in the latest printing technology,” Mr Quinn said.

Additive Assurance has developed a quality assurance system for metal 3D printers.

Further, technology developed right here in Australia at Victoria’s Monash University is set to be used in 3D printers at Volkswagen’s manufacturing headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany. 

Additive Assurance, a company which has developed a quality assurance system for metal 3D printers says the use of printers in this context is “taking the world by storm”, but quality has not been at the level it needs to be for important applications. Volkswagen will use the brand’s AMiRIS system to assist in developing future products, and it will be used in the German giant’s production 3D printing systems to develop prototype vehicle parts faster.

Additive Assurance points to cars like the BMW i8 which used 3D printed parts in its development, and notes the industry has a big future thanks to the use of systems like this for prototyping parts in Formula 1, and the need for more innovative weight-reducing parts in everything from brake calipers in supercars to the internals of electric motors in electric vehicles.

Tom White
Senior Journalist
Despite studying ancient history and law at university, it makes sense Tom ended up writing about cars, as he spent the majority of his waking hours finding ways to drive as many as possible. His fascination with automobiles was also accompanied by an affinity for technology growing up, and he is just as comfortable tinkering with gadgets as he is behind the wheel. His time at CarsGuide has given him a nose for industry news and developments at the forefront of car technology.
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