3D printing technology is making its way into the automotive aftermarket. This new option allows hobbyists and small businesses to make custom parts and accessories for cars of all ages.
This is an important development, and opens the door for obsolete parts to be made for vintage car collectors. It also creates a new market for custom new car accessories.
Let’s take a look at 3D printing, some applications and product sources.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing is a manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital model file. This process was devised in the 1980s and originally known as ‘rapid prototyping’. It enabled companies to develop prototypes quickly and more accurately than with other methods.
After over 30 years of innovation, its uses are far more diverse today. Everyone from manufacturers to hobbyists can use the technology for a huge range of applications.
The act of 3D printing involves building up layers of molten plastic to create an object. As each layer sets, the next layer is printed on top and the object takes shape. A digital file containing the coordinates of the part tells the 3D printer where to print the material.
3D printers can print these layers at different thicknesses, known as layer height. A bit like pixels on a screen, more layers in a print will give a higher resolution. Higher resolution means higher quality.
I was watching a car video last summer, and the host was trying to fix the sunroof on an old Mercury Capri. The rear half of the sunroof panel would not lift into place because a small guide was broken. The part was no longer available from Ford or in the aftermarket.
The host contacted a local prototype shop, who was able to scan the other sunroof guide and build a duplicate part using their 3D printer. While the cost was relatively high, the fact a new part could be made from a digital scan was truly remarkable.
Beyond restoration parts, low volume accessories can also be made from this process. Last summer, I was looking for a “thumb throttle” to attach to the twist throttle on our new electric bikes. The throttle on our bikes were awkward to use–mainly for my wife who has nerve damage in her wrist. Luckily, I found the orange part in the above picture on Etsy. The seller was able to make two pieces for less than $10. It worked great and was a cheap and easy solution for us.
Etsy is a terrific place to buy one-off or customized parts. Check out a sample of 3D printed parts and accessories on Etsy HERE.
Ford Offers Free Solutions for Maverick
Ford Motor Company introduced their Maverick compact pickup in 2021. It was launched with a base price under $20,000 and offered a lot of thoughtful features and solutions. Since buyers of the Maverick are budget conscious, they don’t always fully equip their truck at the time of purchase.
In order to save money when buying their vehicles, many truck owners like to customize their trucks throughout its ownership. Ford recognized that and offers several accessories for sale. They also offer an interesting option for customers on a budget.
Ford is encouraging its customers to 3D print new accessories for the Maverick truck. They released CAD files of the Maverick’s storage area under the rear seats and also for its slotted accessories called the Ford Integrated Tether System (FITS).
There are a total of eight FITS slots in the vehicle– one behind the center console where a cupholder would could go and seven under the rear seat bench. It’s designed to be modular, allowing customers to order a set of accessories to fit different needs. Pretty inventive!
If you would like to see what Ford offers for the do it yourselfer, click HERE. I applaud them for considering the needs of their budget minded (and creative) Maverick buyers.
Small Business: Subietrays
A couple of weeks ago, I saw an interesting post in a Subaru group on Facebook. The poster, Ian Hollerbach, was looking for an Outback in Southeast Michigan to model his new trays for the Outback center console.
The timing was good, as I was looking for a solution to manage the junk that is stowed in the deep cubby in my console. I met Ian and his fiance at my house the following weekend. During that visit, he fitted two new trays in my car. We had quite the conversation, and I was able to learn more about their company, Subietrays.com.
The Back Story
Ian was a 3D printing novice in May 2020, when he decided to make a center console organizer for his 2014 Subaru WRX. By September 2020, he discovered many other people were looking for the same solution. He cleaned up the designs, built a website, and opened for business out of his basement. He offered multiple options for each car, and began expanding the lineup to other models.
One year later, Ian invested in a laser cutter, which allowed him to precision cut leather inserts for each tray. The leather adds a premium look and feel to the trays, while keeping loose items from rattling around.
Largely thanks to the support of the Subaru community, he has been able to slowly grow the operation. He now offers trays for nearly every Subaru built in the last decade. Ian and his fiance are constantly improving the range and quality of their products, properly servicing loyal Subaru customers.
According to Ian, he has made around 2,500 console trays since 2020. He plans to expand his offering to include an organizer for the front cubby of the console. A cup holder insert will be next (to help stabilize smaller cups and bottles in the larger cup holders).
From what I experienced with my Subietrays, they are high quality and thoughtfully designed. After just a week of use, I don’t think I could live without them. I’m sure Ian will have great success with his business, and will only be limited by the space in his basement!
Questions, Thoughts or Wondering Who’s Your Nanny?
3D printing is offering car collectors and enthusiasts with creative and reasonably priced solutions for their cars. As technology improves so will the range of offerings.
Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or message me through the Vehicle Nanny Instagram or Facebook pages.
Want to learn more about me? Go to this article: Who’s Your Nanny?