When you think of 3D printing, chances are, you’ll be thinking of materials and products made of out plastic. Or sometimes sugar and chocolate. But that presumption might soon be a thing of the past, if Audi Tooling has its way. The toolmaking arm of the car maker, together with other family members from Volkswagen, has just practically 3D printed the Grand Prix sports car Audi Union Typ C. More than just a throwback to history, the feat was made possible by actually printing the parts using metal materials.
Metal 3D printing is virtually unheard of or extremely rare, too rare to be a reliable source for car components. At least for now. Audi, and Volkswagen for that matter, envisions a future where it would be just as easy to 3D print metal components as plastic ones are today. In such a future, car makers will be able to produce components that are more complex than could be made with conventional production methods.
For its test run, Audi Tooling uses metallic powder with grains that are 15 to 40 thousandths of a millimeter. That’s half the diameter of a human hair, which is already hard to visualize. These are melted into layers, pretty much the same process involved in more conventional 3D printing. As a side effect, 3D printed metal components offer a higher density than those produced through die casting or hot forming.
That said, the present state of metal 3D printing is still far from ideal. Currently, Audi Tooling is only able to produce components that are 240 mm long by 200 mm high. That’s why the Union Typ C they made is only on a scale of 1:2. Not big enough to race but still enough to fit one rider inside. It’s not yet there, but it’s a start.