Automakers and suppliers are on the cusp of revolutionary change through their growing use of 3D printing, a technology that can make custom parts on demand and has the potential to mass-produce parts.
Once the technology achieves critical mass, industry analysts say, 3D printing also could affect fixed operations at dealerships.
Many automakers now use 3D printing to make prototype parts for vehicle development, as well as tools and assembly aids for manufacturing operations. Several car companies are looking into making production parts with 3D printers in the next five years. Some automakers currently produce handfuls of small replacement parts, typically interior trim pieces.
Tech geeks and do-it-yourselfers already are making small parts on demand for older cars — ashtrays, clips and interior trim for which the tooling is long gone — with 3D printers that cost less than $500. Lurking on the sidelines are technology startups with 3D printing expertise that could become new suppliers to the industry.
If auto manufacturers, suppliers and others see so much potential from 3D printing, should dealers also be excited about its prospects, especially large dealership groups that have deep pockets and scale? Why buy parts from a vendor or scrounge for a hard-to-find clip or trim molding when a dealership could produce it in house?
Nikhil Gupta, a mechanical engineering professor at New York University, says jumping into manufacturing would be out of character for dealers whose business model is to sell and service cars.
"Once you start manufacturing something, you create a cost center within your company," Gupta told Fixed Ops Journal. "A lot of times, people are not comfortable having a big cost center along with a revenue center within the same company structure. There are incentives, but there also are downsides."
Using a 3D printer to make high-quality components that are durable and have a finished appearance is more expensive than conventional manufacturing, especially when it is done in low volumes, Gupta warns.
Moreover, he estimates that a single printer capable of making several different parts today could cost $750,000 to $1 million, although printer costs are dropping. HP announced recently that it plans to offer a $400,000 3D printer called Metal Jet that makes metal parts.
Becoming a parts manufacturer raises other issues for dealers, Gupta adds.
"Who's going to take the responsibility for liability?" he says. "How do they test the products that they make in their shop? Should dealers take this responsibility of testing everything and taking the liability? We don't know that yet."