Full disclosure: I’m one of the individuals who is involved in the launch of a new premium, quarterly magazine on automotive history entitled Crankshaft. One story slated for the inaugural issue, which will launch in the spring, is about the restoration of a Tucker 48 sedan with help from the descendants of Preston Tucker. Part of the story describes the U.S. of today’s home-based 3D printing technology to create parts for which NOS replacements simply don’t exist, created by making patterns derived from the original Tucker factory blueprints. This process enabled specific, essential parts to be re-created in very small numbers, but with absolute precision. This kind of technology, for making highly limited runs of complex pieces, is increasingly being embraced by volume automakers, such as BMW.
BMW isn’t just about fine German cars anymore; in recent history, it has taken over ownership of both Rolls-Royce and MINI. BMW is scaling up the process of 3D printing to transition it from nearly artisan-level work to the larger scales of mass production, an initiative known as additive manufacturing, which it conducts from a dedicated technology facility in Munich. The idea is to embrace 3D as a way to speed up production of parts needed in small volumes, thereby accelerating product development. Currently, that involves the production of low-volume metal and polymer components for Rolls-Royce. Complicated parts can be patterned by the use of computer algorithms to fine-tune their shapes and dimensions. The photo from BMW shows the next step of that process, arriving at precisely measured dimensions and thicknesses by minutely shaping the printed piece by melting its surface with a laser beam until the piece, from which a casting mold will be created, exactly matches its specification. About 50 such processing systems are in operation at the Munich center, with another 50 being used at BMW production sites around the world.