The automotive industry is currently going through a transformative period. Carmakers today must act quickly and smartly, anticipating market changes to bring affordable, exciting new products to consumers. To do so, companies now rely on rapid prototyping, which is completely transforming the way engineers create and test car designs, affecting a number of different auto careers in the process.
Whether it’s to validate a futuristic concept for a vehicle or a refresh a classic car to accommodate the needs of today’s drivers, three-dimensional rapid prototyping accelerates the creative process and reduces the time and money spent on clay modeling and molding of expensive prototype parts. Designers and engineers around the world are able to see and touch their creations faster and at lower cost, which then allows them to receive real-world feedback on their designs and make adjustments to improve them.
Before a part is created in the rapid prototyping shop, the computer model itself is tested for proper airflow in a simulation environment. The 3D prototyping environment can generate a fully detailed vehicle, including the engine, brake lines, drive shafts, exhaust system, transmission, suspension and other car components.
New techniques like Selective Laser Sintering or Stereolithography allow engineers to quickly create a new part for wind tunnel testing, allowing them to test more iterations of the same part in less time. Air flow through the engine compartment and underneath the car is critical to both cooling the engine and lowering drag, which is why the wind tunnel is used for advanced tests.
Compared to old-style clay models that had to be re-sculpted each time, this is night and day, as engineers now receive feedback at multiple stages in the process. More time is spent evaluating the impact of the changes than waiting for adjustments to be made. This makes it much easier to test an unconventional idea, as all is required is manpower.
In addition to design, rapid prototyping is also speeding up test tracks and on-road evaluations. Engineers can produce multiple versions of the same part, then have a skilled auto technician with auto technician training replace the parts on a production model for each test run. This flexibility can even allow engineers to test elements like driver comfort, such as, for example, having production vehicles equipped with different variations of interior parts.
Thanks to simulation environments and rapid prototyping, the design of components like the cooling systems are locked in much earlier in the overall process. This means fewer prototypes of the full vehicle are needed, allowing vehicles to go from concept to production much more quickly and smoothly. There is also a better correlation of air flow measurements between the test part and the full vehicles, meaning fewer expensive changes are needed late in the process.