Alfa Romeo Tipo racecar.
Classic cars are big business. According to the experts*, the UK market for vintage and historic vehicles is worth more than £4.3bn. These are highly valuable, appreciating assets that have out-performed fine wines, artworks and even the London property market over the past decade. However, from an owner/driver’s perspective, the issue of parts obsolescence is a real headache. Given the high value and low volume of these vehicles, once a part breaks it is often difficult or even impossible to replace it. However, this low volume/high value marketplace has created ideal conditions to exploit the benefits of additive manufacturing (AM).
At the moment, AM cannot match the cost and quality performance delivered by the well-established toolmaking route to make parts in high volumes. Arguably, 3D printing should never aim to match these processes as it brings a completely different set of values to the process.
Instead, the real value that AM brings is in the areas of low volume manufacturing, zero tooling manufacturing capability and minimum order quantities of one, mass customisation, manufacturing of difficult structures and the use of high performance materials. What’s more, it also brings further benefits from a cost reduction perspective.
For example, we recently completed a project to remanufacture the complex engine front cover for a very rare Alfa Romeo Tipo racecar from 1971 - a good example of this theory in practice.
Originally cast in magnesium, this integral part of the car’s engine was so badly worn and damaged that it no longer functioned correctly. Before approaching KWSP, the owner had considered using traditional manufacturing techniques to manufacture the part, but this proved prohibitively expensive. Instead, our design engineers were able to produce not just an exact replica of the damaged part, but an improved, ‘as new’ engine cover spare part. Having scanned the original part and created a new detailed CAD model of the replacement cover, we then printed a proof of concept part in ABS, using one of our Stratasys FDM machines.
Once the printed part was fitted to the engine (to test its geometric functionality), we moved ahead to the final stage of casting. In this instance, it was the intelligent use of tools that delivered significant value. We didn’t just offer a scanning service, or a CAD service or even a 3D printing service. We offered an end-to-end solution, solving the customer’s problem in one hit. To do this, our engineers consulted closely with the customer and then exploited the scan, CAD and AM tools to deliver the solution that was needed – a reproduction front cover casting.
From left: Original complex engine front cover and new complex engine cover.
The ability to manufacture one-off parts without the cost of expensive model making and tooling is an important benefit that AM brings to the historic car market.
And on this occasion, the use of 3D printing allowed us to cut out the majority of tooling costs, making the project financially viable for the low volumes being manufactured.
However, AM can also be used to manufacture end use parts directly. As long as you have the right CAD data available, relatively complex items - such as water pump housings and impeller blades - can be printed as one-offs, at a far lower cost than was previously considered possible.
Another important aspect of AM application in the classic car market, which is under-appreciated at the moment, is the use of jigs, fixtures and tooling. This use of 3D printing to manufacture bespoke tooling to make parts or to help with assemblies is becoming more widespread as the application of AM is better understood.
In practice, this less obvious use of AM within the classic automotive market has great potential to cut time and cost while improving quality. It might be body fixture jigs or drill templates that allow engineers to accurately make the same guide holes around light cowlings, for instance, or dashboard layouts, or welding fixtures. Certainly, this innovative use of 3D printed templates is low cost and easy to do, but makes elements of bodywork repair or improvement very accurate, repeatable and less labour intensive.
While most engineers might consider the printing of obsolescent parts to be the ‘hot spot’ for 3D printing in the historic car sector right now, the wider application of AM in more obscure areas such as jigs and tooling possibly holds just as much potential. Certainly, the creative use of AM in this way enables skilled craftsmen to focus their efforts on other areas.
Given the size of the classic car market in the UK, the opportunities for additive manufacturing to demonstrate its value – in both spare parts and more widely in the remanufacturing process - are considerable.