For now, makers of heavy trucks and equipment are ahead of auto manufacturers in their use of 3D printing.
A recent report by the consulting firm Carlisle & Co. lists six manufacturers in these industries that are producing aftermarket parts with 3D printers.
Daimler Trucks North America uses 3D printers to produce interior trim pieces, dashboard covers and other plastic parts that customers can't find anywhere else.
"We're only doing non-safety-relevant parts, never something that could cause a truck to break down along the side of the road," says Nathan Zamani, senior purchasing agent for Daimler.
Zamani notes that making parts with 3D printers is currently more expensive than conventional means. But he adds that costs are coming down and Daimler is eyeing the technology for parts for new vehicles.
"About two years ago, when we really started dedicating resources to this, 3D printing with plastics was three to four times more expensive," Zamani says. "In not too long, it will be actual cost savings. "We'll be able to start printing parts for new vehicles, and more customization will be possible."
Rohit Mathew, manager of the 3D printing portfolio at Carlisle & Co., notes that 3D printers produce medical devices and aerospace parts.
It is only a matter of time, he predicts, before automakers will join the movement on a similar scale.