Delivering on the promise of the 3D printed car

If there’s one subject that gets enthusiasts’ tongues wagging and cynical tweeters tweeting, it’s that of the 3D printed car. The domain of concept designs and novelty trade show exhibits, 3D printing’s impact on the automotive industry has typically been under the hood and on production lines. Until now.

Earlier this year, Italian car manufacturer XEV unveiled a proof-of-concept model for a mass-producible 3D printed electric car, the LSEV, developed with Chinese 3D printing materials company, Polymaker. XEV has just secured its first “mega factory” in Jiangsu, right next to major automotive companies like Kia Motors and Hyundai, where it plans to begin production on the vehicles next year.

The LSEV is a two-seater car made almost entirely with 3D printing, minus structural framework including steel chassis, roll cage and glass windows. It features a total of 57 plastic components which can be produced in just three days, a substantial reduction from the approximate 2,000 SKUs found in a traditionally manufactured vehicle of a similar size.

In traditional car manufacturing, the majority of costs comes from supply chains, tooling and a need for various manufacturing processes. To be successful, XEV CEO, Stanley Lou believes that manufacturers need to check three boxes; how does the car look, feel and how much will it cost? Get any of that wrong and you’ve wasted a lot of time and money. Using 3D printing and data as an inventory, that risk is much lower which is why XEV is producing 2,000 of its own large-format plastic extrusion 3D printers to be used inside its factories. The process has already reduced production waste by around 70%.

“It’s nothing really new here,” Luke Taylor, Marketing Manager at Polymaker explains. “What they’ve built is a very robust, high-temperature industrial 3D printer. The technology is well-known in the industry, it’s just a new way of applying it and then applying the post processes on this kind of scale. That has never been done before.”

Parts are being produced in four different grades of polyamide and TPU, powered by Polymaker’s Warp-Free technology which improves the printability of Nylon filaments. The polyamide materials are being applied to impact and heat resistant areas while flexible TPU is being used for the bumper and other internal features. The plan is to have an onsite extrusion line based at every factory to produce materials on-demand. 

The magic is in the Vacuum Lamination post processing which Polymaker has developed with XEV. Parts are printed around 2mm smaller to allow a film of polyamide to be layered on top, similar to vacuum forming, which hides FDM layers and eliminates the need for painting.

The first orders have already been placed by Poste Italiane who have commissioned 5,000 customised vehicles which include a storage box to carry mail in place of the passenger seat. Other companies like Holiday Inn and Pizza Hut are also exploring the potential for the LSEV in their day-to-day operations. For consumers, Taylor imagines a commission-based online “car builder platform”, akin to Shapeways, where designers can upload new skins and parts and customers can order customised pieces.

XEV have produced 15 vehicles so far which are being put through all of the standard safety tests before certified road-ready for 2019. It even has a crumple zone area, found in standard vehicles, designed to take impact in the event of a collision.

The LSEV, set to ship for around 8-10,000 Euro, is just the beginning. XEV plans to scale up with designs already in the works for four new cars including a sedan style model and a sports car.

“No one has tried to do this mass produced, easily customisable car. The automotive industry is already doing this [customisation] but it’s taking it even further. Every car is unique and I think that will really appeal to the customers, especially the fact that it’s going to be a very competitive price, and with the rise of electric vehicles we think it’s going to be very successful.”

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