It's January 2030 and several automakers at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit are debuting production-ready 2031 models that did not exist — not even on a sketch pad — just 12 months before.
Before the big change to 3-D-printed tooling in the early 2020s, most automakers spent between two and three years, hundreds of millions of dollars and countless man-hours, to create a vehicle from the wheels up. Now designing a vehicle — using an existing electric powertrain and battery pack wrapped in an all-new body — takes between eight and 12 months to go from design to first customer delivery.
Stamping dies that form the vehicle's largest parts — fenders, roof panels, floor pans, shock towers — are 3-D-printed, changing almost everything. Instead of waiting months for these dies to be manufactured, they are now 3-D-printed in days.
Designers who once created the vehicle and handed it off to engineers to develop, who then handed it off to manufacturers to build, now work side-by-side with design and manufacturing engineers and perform all three functions simultaneously — a process that one now retired executive coined "manufacturing agility" a decade or so ago.
Rapid prototype parts made of thermoplastic are machined and ready to test-fit in hours. Once the design is validated and approved for manufacturability, the tooling to make the part in metal, magnesium, carbon fiber or cast aluminum — and with a class A surface, if needed — is 3-D-printed in-house at the automaker at a tiny fraction of the cost of the old, traditional die.
Because many of the vehicle's mechanical parts, suspension, body hardware and electric powertrain are off-the-shelf components sourced either in-house or from suppliers, about 50 percent of the usual testing and validation work is no longer required, further reducing product development time and cost.
Electric drivetrains, for instance, do not require EPA testing, emissions certification and stringent testing in weather extremes. And because electric drivetrains are smaller, lighter and easier to manage in severe crashes, most new cars are safety tested — and certified — on computers.