3D printing can do a lot of cool things: you can make bits and pieces for around the home, toys for your kid, or just a never ending supply of bottle openers. Now they can also be used to print car parts.

While we don’t often talk about car technology, Ford’s announcement this week is too good to miss out on, informing the world that it has been working on 3D printing car parts. It’s a technique that can’t be done with your conventional home 3D printer — as “conventional” as that currently is, since few people own them — but could be rolled out to future 3D printers, and changes the way car companies create part.

For this, Ford turned to a 3D printer from Stratasys, relying on the Infinite Build 3D printing system, which is basically a room-sized printer that takes a 3D design and then prints layer by layer in plastic before assembling the layers together into the final 3D printer.

That’s a little more complicated than standard 3D printers, particularly since there’s an element of robotics here, complete with a robotic arm that can detect an empty material canister and replace the plastic when it runs out, making it able to run for days without someone needing to be there.

The result, however, is that the 3D printer part is able to be built with no one being there and without needing to turn to custom moulds or die parts, a factor in why custom car components can cost so much.

For car makers and car modders, this process will allow a prototype or custom car part to be developed and tested in the space of a few days, rather than say the months it might take to get it professionally built, and once the printer cost is out of the picture, at a much lower cost, too.

“With the Infinite Build technology, we are now able to print large tools, fixtures, and components, making us more nimble in design iterations,” said Ellen Lee, Technical Leader for Addictive Manufacturing Research at Ford. “We’re excited to have early access to Stratasys’ new technology in order to help steer the development of large scale printing for automotive applications and requirements.”

So how does this affect you?

Well right now it doesn’t, with the technology only available at Ford’s Research and Innovation Centre in Dearborn, Michigan, a part of the United States you’re not likely to just wander up to for a casual car part, not that they’d let you in to grab one.

But the research in this area should pave the way to regular people like yourself printing bits and pieces for your car in the somewhat near future.

Break a handle or knob off? Print one. Missing out on a small piece for under the hood? Print that, too. And if you know someone who likes to mod their car a little or build go-kart race cars for fun on the weekend, they could potentially embrace the 3D printer and get stuck into that, too.

Really, the sky’s the limit here, with the possibility that with enough of the printing like this and you won’t need your mechanic to recommend a replacement part; you could just print it yourself.

Perhaps we should coin a term for later use: PiY (print-it yourself).

A technology journalist working out of Sydney, Australia, Leigh has written for publications including The Australian Financial Review, GadgetGuy, Popular Science, APC, PC & Tech Authority, as well as for radio and TV since 2007.

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