Home printed car parts and toys, still a dream!

Ron Gilboa
Jun 10, 2013

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal this week discussed 3D Printing by companies such as Ford, General Electrics, and Mattel. The article was also accompanied by a video interview with Ford’s Harold Sears, 3D printing specialist at Ford who provided insights on the use of 3D printing at his facility.

In the article, the three companies discussed their long time use of 3D printing to make prototypes, molds, and even finished products using 3D technology. Key drivers for 3D printing at these companies are the ability to produce accurate parts faster than traditional fabrication methods, and reduced costs. These stories highlight this common theme but also one other–that manufacturers have good reasons to be against the “printing” of their parts or even whole products.

Ford Motor

“For now, Ford is using 3-D printing to prototype automobile parts for test vehicles, which it has been doing since the 1980s. At the Beech Daly Technical Center in Dearborn, Michigan

Using 3-D printing, Ford saves an average of one month of production time to create a casting for a prototype cylinder head for its EcoBoost family of engines. This complex part includes numerous ports, ducts, passages and valves to manage fuel and air flow.

With 3-D printing, Ford engineers can design and print the sand mold and pour the metal in three months, skipping the time-consuming process of cutting castings out of material molds. Engineers can also print several cylinder head iterations at once, allowing them to test multiple prototypes of the same part to identify the best design for production.

However in the video interview Ford’s Harold Sears would not endorse the printing of parts at home by end users because there is no guarantee that such parts will perform as well as the OEM parts. In addition, Sears cited as the warranty and liability issues associate with parts that have not passed the rigor of testing that is done on parts manufactured by Ford.

General Electric

“In coming years the airliner you’re flying may come fitted with some printed parts. GE’s Aviation unit prints fuel injectors and other
components within the combustion system of a jet engine being built by CFM International, a joint company of GE and France’s Snecma SA. By 2016, the LEAP jet engine is expected to be fitted for commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 737 MAX and the Airbus A320neo, which are still being developed.

Mark Little, senior vice president and director of GE’s global research group, said that building jet engine airflow castings by melting metal powders layer by layer can be more precise than making and cutting the parts from a ceramic mold. GE said this process is technically more efficient and should save the company money in the future. The company declined to speculate on potential cost savings.

GE is also experimenting with 3-D printing to produce a medical device, the ultrasound probe. The device is placed on the patient’s body during medical exams and transmits and receives signals that generate ultrasound images. Traditional methods require hours of cutting and refinement to render intricate patterns near the probe’s face that help render ultrasound images.

Researchers at GE say that 3-D printing could help cut the costs of manufacturing certain parts of the probe by 30%.”


The toy maker used to sculpt prototypes of toys from wax and clay before building the production models out of plastic. Today, Mattel engineers use any of 30 3-D printers to create prototype parts of virtually every type of toy that it manufactures, including popular brands such as Max Steel, Hot Wheels cars, and Monster High dolls.

But the toy maker draws the line at selling consumers software files that would enable them to print out their own toys on low-cost 3-D printers.

A company spokesman said the company couldn’t guarantee toys that consumers printed out would be safe for children, a “topic that the entire toy industry will have to face and embrace” as 3-D printer use broadens at home.

Our take
3D printing has been making inroads into many industries from toys to aircraft manufacturing. We have seen several key technologies take hold in 3D manufacturing, and these fit into 2 main categories: (1) phase change technologies where filaments or powders are fed into a system, melted and then deposited in layers to form the 3D model, and (2) jetting of resins through a piezoelectric inkjet head where the jetted liquid cures and forms the 3D model one layer at a time. Key differences between the two are usability: while phase change materials can be used as final functional product, the jetted resins are usually used for prototypes only. Conversely jetted models have a greater degree of accuracy (i.e. below 20 microns) while phase changing technologies have lower resolution.

As we see from the WSJ article and videos most manufacturers deploy all types of 3D printing to cover the range of applications they might need to produce.

Also it’s clear from this article that many manufactures will not approve the printing of their products at home, citing liability, materials integrity and other considerations. With the proliferation of entry level personal 3D printers it will be interesting to follow these developments as “home manufacturing” of parts or toys is becoming increasingly feasible.  There are issues for this field, though, beyond just product integrity, since patents and brand equity will play into this equation as well.

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