In mid-February 2018, Porsche announced that it is producing parts for its classic vehicles with the help of 3-D printing technology. Using 3-D printers to make car or motorcycle parts isn't unheard-of, but it's typically been the stuff of hobbyists who come up short while sourcing parts for a restoration or repair, or want to make custom parts for a car.
Porsche, however, said its strategy is mainly for extremely rare parts that are too expensive to produce by traditional methods. In other words, you probably won't come across one of these 3-D-printed parts unless you're working on an especially old or rare model. The parts will be available through Porsche Classic, a division of the company that is dedicated to vintage Porsche vehicles.
For instance, since only 292 Porsche 959s were ever sold, it's safe to assume fewer than that still exist today. Parts are even more rare — the release lever for the clutch is no longer available, so it is completely unrealistic for Porsche to produce the part on a regular manufacturing line because it would be prohibitively expensive. But the 3-D-printed parts can be made on demand, so they don't need to be made in bulk and stored.
Porsche describes the 3-D printing process to make this clutch component as "selective laser melting." Here's how it works:
- The part is scanned and mapped, and its specifications are put into a computer.
- A layer of powdered steel less than 0.1 millimeter (0.003 inches) thick is applied to the 3-D printing machinery.
- A computer-controlled laser beam melts the powder in the correct shape, making the first layer.
- The process is repeated, layer by layer, until the part is complete.
- The part is pressure-tested for strength, scanned for structural integrity and installed on the car to ensure functionality.
- The process for plastic parts, known as "selective laser sintering," is similar, and uses plastic that resists degradation by the car's fluids.
Porsche is currently using this process to make the 929 clutch release lever and eight other parts, and has identified 20 more classic parts as potentials for 3-D printing. Customers need not worry about the strength, durability or appearance of these parts, either, since those produced so far have met high standards. "All parts that are produced using the 3-D printing process meet the requirements in terms of absolute fidelity to the original specifications — both from a technical and a visual perspective," Porsche said in a press statement.
3-D printing will probably become more common as other auto manufacturers begin to see its benefits. In fact, Mercedes-Benz uses this same technique for vintage truck parts, and Ford is experimenting with using 3-D printing for performance and custom parts.