The gentleman who sold me my first car, a 1969 Datsun 2000, asked me to cup my hands as he poured out a jumble of letters. I dropped them onto the faded yellow hood of the roadster and arranged them: D-A-T-S-U-N. They likely cost pennies to produce, but they were priceless to me, even the T with missing a nib that would make attaching it to the car difficult. If I lost any of these letters in 1989, that was it. I had no way to replace them. I couldn't scour online auctions, because those didn't exist. While there were far more Datsuns on the road in the '80s than there are now, it was unlikely anyone else near me would part with their precious portions of the alphabet. And don’t even get me started on the anxiety I had about losing the "Datsun" and "2000" emblems on the side of the car.
If I had that car today—I'm actually trying to buy it back, fingers crossed—the thought of losing any of those emblems or letters is less of a concern. They're available for purchase online, sure, but more important, I can just make them at home. Although it'll cost a bit more than pennies.
Just a few years ago, a 3-D printer would have set you back thousands of dollars and required the owner to delve into the confusing and expensive world of computer-aided design (CAD) software. It was a daunting undertaking, and the end result was a lot of early adopters printing a large inventory of Yoda and other sci-fi figurines.
As with most technology, the prices and learning curve have dropped. For those with project cars, it might be time to take the plunge. For a few hundred dollars, you'd have access to printing non-mechanical parts such as badges and hard-to-find interior pieces that may no longer be available.
"Like any good tool, it's best if you have a project for it," Mike Senese, executive editor of Make: magazine, told Car and Driver. Senese said that even if you don't want to get into designing parts, there are multiple repositories out there where hobbyists can download and print items, including a large number of automotive badges and logos.
If you do get a 3-D printer, Senese recommends searching sites like Thingiverse, YouMagine, and Prusa Printers for items you want to print to get your feet wet and learn about the system. It's also smart to search for items you might want and see if they are available before pulling the trigger on a 3-D printer. That's especially true if you're not interested in designing your own items.
If you do decide to buy a 3-D printer, designing a piece is actually easier than you might think. Senese recommends the online tool TinkerCAD. "It's kind of like the Lego of the CAD world," Senese said. It has a shallow learning curve and includes the type of precision measurement tools typically found in more expensive (and difficult to use) pieces of software.
The world of 3-D printing has also opened up possibilities beyond creating single-use objects. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the almost inconceivable task taken up by physicist Sterling Backus and his son: to print a Lamborghini Aventador replica.
While playing Forza Horizon 3, the physicist's son asked if they could build an Aventador from scratch. Printing the panels in 3-D wasn't part of the initial plan. Backus originally expected he would be pounding aluminum and steel panels for the car's exterior. After doing research and buying a 1/10-scale model of the Lamborghini and using that to create a full-size car in the 3-D drafting software, the two decided to print the supercar's bumper as a set of small pieces they would then glue together.
The duo had already built a frame. "So, we kind of mocked it up on there," Backus said, "and we stood back and looked at it and thought, 'Wow, this is actually gonna work.'" They eventually transitioned from printing the entire panel to printing a frame structure that could be encapsulated in carbon fiber.
During their journey, they learned that not all filaments are created equal. At a car show, some of the panels melted and settled in under the hot August sun. The duo had used organic-based polylactic acid, or PLA. The filament has a low melting point that makes it great for printing detailed items, but it's not known for its ability to withstand the power of the sun.
What PLA is good for is prototyping. It's inexpensive and biodegradable. Backus said that more than 100 pounds of mistakes went into the trash initially as they figured out what worked on their Lamborghini.
For stronger prints that can survive in the wild, Senese said that acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PET or PETG) offer more strength. ABS can be a bit tougher to work with, while PET offers strength and can be a bit easier to print. Like the Aventador project, a lot of 3-D printing comes down to trial and error as you figure out what's best for your individual project.
For those mechanical parts you're missing, it's going to be awhile before you're able to replace a camshaft or custom cylinder head cover at home. It's not out the realm of possibility, however. Desktop Metal has created a three-step system for metal and carbon-fiber printing. The company uses a filament that's part metal powder and part adhesive. The company wants to put its systems in schools and other public spaces. "We want to take these million-dollar complex systems that rely on lasers to melt the material, and we want to turn it more into a simpler, less expensive process that anyone can use and anyone can afford," said Jonah Myerberg, Desktop Metal’s chief technology officer.
The company's first printers currently cost a couple hundred thousand dollars, but it's trying to get that price down to $10,000 and then finally down to a price more people can afford. "Every garage should have these," Myerberg said.
Automakers have been using the technology for years for prototyping parts. General Motors even built a C8 Corvette that was 75-percent printed parts to make sure everything fit as intended. Porsche just announced that it 3-D-printed pistons for the GT2 RS that survived 200 hours of hard driving on its test engine. Both automakers see a potential market for printing parts for vintage vehicles, and both would rather they printed a mechanical part for a customer than the customer print it themselves and see it fail with potentially catastrophic results.
So, maybe don't try to print your own pistons. What you can do once you start printing is find like-minded individuals. Backus found a Facebook community of car enthusiasts who use 3-D printing, and Senese pointed to Reddit as a possible source of information and camaraderie.
The technology isn't there to print the engine head cover with your name on it. But it is there to replace some of the more ancillary parts on your project vehicle. I did a quick price check on Datsun 2000 letters, and they're fetching about $140 online. We all know project-car parts are an unending series of $100 and $200 parts that can quickly add up. Financially, it made sense for me to 3-D print and paint my own emblems and other non-mechanical parts for the car. Restoring a vehicle is a learning experience. And like learning to work with Bondo and tricky electrical systems, 3-D printing could become a necessary part of the process.
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