Automotive Replacement Parts

Hi folks. I’m, Molly.


I’m a new brain on the team at Thingsmiths and excited to contribute an occasional blog post to Makerthoughts. 


As you’ll remember from a few posts back, our teammate Steve was satisfied with his new-to-him vehicle purchase but needed to make one small adjustment. The passenger-side, front bumper was missing an insert piece. We sized up the part and determined we could easily print a replica using a scan of the driver-side insert.  Here’s a snapshot for our process:


•       3D scan part and clean up scan data – Check.


•       Choose appropriate material – Since Steve was coating the parts and they weren't a performance-critical part, we had some flexibility with what we could use. We chose our Standard Plastic for this purpose.


3D Printed Part and Original Part

•       Print using our FDM Technology – One of the perceived obstacles of this project was ensuring the part could sustain impact from daily driving and withstand Michigan’s four beautiful, occasionally tempestuous, seasons. In order to promote durability and integrity, we printed the piece with a dense infill in a rectilinear pattern. While not as strong as injection molding, it runs a pretty close second and works great for this particular replacement part.

3D Printed Car Component

•       Post printing – Once all support material was removed and the piece was sanded down it was ready for a coat of auto paint.  I tried talking Steve into jazzing up his new vehicle, but for some reason he didn’t share the same enthusiasm. Although he is a dedicated University of Michigan fan, he wasn’t as keen on the idea of sporting blue and gold M’s across the front of his new car. He opted for a sleek, black paint to match the exterior trim instead – and I admit it looks pretty sharp. Once the parts were dry he tested them for dimensional accuracy.


•       Install! The final results after permanent installation indicated a successful project. Steve’s car is back on the road demonstrating the print’s durability.


The presence of a duplicate piece in this scenario as well as the function of the part made this an ideal project for a 3D printed replacement. 3D printing is the ideal solution for scenarios in which the part may no longer be manufactured (classic cars anyone?) or in which the speed and cost efficiency of 3D printing exceeds traditional manufacturing methods.

Car with 3D Printed Component Added


Perhaps most significantly, in a world of mass-manufactured products and homogenous styles, 3D printing offers the element of personalization and customization at an affordable price. While Steve didn’t take any of my suggestions in this case (maybe he's a secret Spartan), the options for color, design, emblems and logos are endless. We're excited to see what you'll come up with. #Goblue

Soldier On

 “Run if you can. Walk if you have to. Crawl if you must. Just never give up.”— Bobby Body


When local creative agency Leo Burnett Detroit reached out to us with the idea to use 3D printing to communicate the story of a United States army veteran, we knew we had to be a part of the project. We worked with their production team to capture and tell the story of, Bobby Body, airborne infantryman whose military career was drastically altered in 2006 when he was struck by a roadside IED while on tour in Iraq. After enduring multiple repair operations, Bobby’s doctors recommended that he undergo an above-the-knee amputation surgery. As Bobby returned to work as a tank mechanic, he didn’t allow the physical change to slow him down. He started competing in powerlifting; achieving four state records, four national records and one world record. 


Scanning Process Underway

Scanning Process Underway

In helping Leo Burnett tell his story, our team took a scan of Bobby weightlifting, capturing his full body image in one scan and a separate scan of his prosthetic leg on the ground next to him. Because each scan took about 5 to 10 minutes (and because Bobby is strong but not invincible), Bobby held the barbell without weights. Back in our design studio, our designer pieced together the scans. She added in the weights and prosthetic leg, while adding the traditional army-man base, creating one uniform 3D design. We then used the CAD to print replicas of Bobby in the size of a traditional, toy soldier using high detail plastic. 

3D Scanning


After initial review by Leo Burnett, and some final tweaks, we had a final model for production. We ran our machines non-stop, creating one hundred and fifty Bobby Body models. After printing, we removed the supports, we sanded and spray painted the soldiers for a polished finish. 

Army Men Curing

Army Men Curing


We think that the 3D printed soldiers captured the essence of Bobby’s life motto, “Run if you can. Walk if you have to. Crawl if you must. Just never give up.” 

Completed Models

Completed Models


View the full process here:


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From atoms to bytes

Once we had the part off of the front of the car we evaluated it's suitability for replication. What makes a part a good candidate for scanning and printing? We look for complexity, how many features are external vs internal, are there moving parts within it. We look at the color of the object, and how reflective the material is. We also evaluate the size, as parts that are too small or too large can be outside our effective scanning area.

Since this part was about 10inches in length, had no internal features, and was of moderate complexity we knew we could get a good scanning result from it.

After placing the object in our desktop scanner, we let the machine work it's magic. How it works: Our scanners use a process called "Laser Triangulation Scanning." In essence the scanner fires an array of lasers at the object, and then using some complex trigonometry determines the distance of the object from the scanner. With enough points of distance it is able to determine the topography of the object, and with enough topography you get a 3D representation of the object.

3D laser scanning in progress

Once the initial scan is done we place digital guide pins to allow the computer to properly align the scans in an accurate context, then trim any excess that we see. The computer then creates a proper mesh of the object and we are able to convert that to formats that we can use in 3D printing. 

Comparing original part to scan data

Comparing original part to scan data

Once that is complete we do a thorough checking of the end result to ensure it reflects the original as accurately as we can. While no scan is "perfect" we always try to make a replication indistinguishable from the original.

The time and accuracy of the process varies object to object, but in general the scanning process takes a couple hours with human involvement being a small portion of that. As you can see from this car scan, the results can replicate the real world quite accurately!

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Automotive Parts

Every so often we get some time and can work on a personal or company print. With our teammate Steve being the proud owner of a "new to him" car, we had the perfect opportunity to put our processes through their paces and demonstrate the future of replacement parts.

Steve's car had one small flaw when he received it, a panel on the front facia was broken. 

Car ready for 3D printed replacement part

After some preliminary inspection, he decided that this part was a perfect fit for replication using our 3D Scanning technology and subsequent 3D Printing. The process will go as follows:

1. Inspect part for suitability - Done! Looks fantastic

3D printed comparison
3D printed automotive replacement part

2. 3D Scan Part and clean up scan data

3. Choose appropriate material - Maybe a chance to go for some "bling" ? We will see!

4. Print using our FDM Technology - Due to the size and needed durability, using our FDM machines will be a perfect fit for this project

5. Post-Process - Clean up part and remove support material. Ensure dimensional accuracy

6. Install!

The largest potential pitfall we see with this project is the location of the part on the car. It will be exposed to a wide range of temperatures (this is Michigan after all), and will be subject to repeated impact by road debris. That said, we've seen our products go through some very large stresses, so we believe it will work out well.

Our plan is to document this project throughout these steps, so check back soon to see how the scanning goes!


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