Today, nearly every automaker and many suppliers have made 3-D printing an element of product development. A Toyota Motor Corp. spokesman said it's "widely used" to assess the ergonomics, feel and response of parts -- qualities that can't be easily replicated on a computer model. Many companies began exploring the technology at least 10 or 20 years ago, while Mitsubishi said it bought a 3-D printer just last year after seeing how much the cost and performance of the machines had improved.
Experts say 3-D printing also has potential for customized aftermarket parts or replacement parts in cases where the originals are no longer available. Collectors of classic cars, for instance, could use it as an alternative to searching for a hard-to-find item.
But it's unlikely that 3-D printers ever will have much of a role in mass-market production because today's methods are faster and more cost-efficient for anything more than extremely small volumes.
"Because of the price per part and the materials involved, it's not just going to allow us to build 200,000 parts for one particular car model," said Kevin Ayers, manager of additive and 3-D printing for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. "It's cost-prohibitive, and that's a barrier we're never going to quite overcome."
Koenigsegg's 1,341-hp One:1 supercar contains some 3-D printed parts, including the turbocharger assembly and a titanium exhaust tip that takes three days to make and shaves off less than a pound of weight. Designers of Nissan Motor Corp.'s Delta-Wing race car used 3-D printing for brake inlets, ducting and gearbox side covers.
Among more mainstream vehicles, the next-generation Mercedes-Benz S class coming in 2018 could have printed trim pieces such as air vents and speaker grilles, Mercedes' chief designer told a British website, AutoExpress, in August.
For making prototypes, though, automakers and suppliers say 3-D printing has been transformative.
Ayers said 3-D printing has greatly reduced the number of recalls needed to replace faulty mechanical parts because engineers can test parts earlier in the development process. Many recalls these days are for malfunctioning electronics and sensors rather than poorly designed parts, he explained.