Can I make my own car parts?

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Scott Benjamin: Hello, everybody. Welcome to the podcast. I'm Scott Benjamin, the auto editor at HowStuffWorks. And I'm here, as always, with Ben. How are you doing, Ben?

Ben Bowlin: I'm doing well. How are you doing, Scott?

Scott Benjamin: Also doing well, thank you. You know what? I've got a question for you. Actually, you brought this up and you had mentioned that you had seen a program, and I think it was a Jay Leno's garage-type program, right?

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: Where he had created his own car parts.

Ben Bowlin: Yes. He had created his own car parts in a very unbelievable science fiction-type manner. Basically, here's what he did, and I understand if you don't believe me, but I have some facts and figures to back this up. So amidst all of his other talents in the entertainment industry, Jay Leno is sort of a Renaissance Man, especially when it comes to automobiles. Most car enthusiasts like you and I know that this guy has these just great charity rides -

Scott Benjamin: Yes, unbelievable collection.

Ben Bowlin: And well maintained, but some of them are so antiquated, and are such old vehicles that there are no parts made for them, no matter how much money and how much time you have. So he has a system whereby he can scan a part or a place where a part should be, take that information, and have it printed out, built, fabricated is the correct word, in three dimensions, so not just a paper rendering or a design of a feed water heater, which is how he started with this, but a piece that is three dimensional, accurate enough that you can make a metal cast off of it and create a useable part.

Scott Benjamin: So the part that he made wasn't metal. It was something else, right?

Ben Bowlin: Right. Okay, yes.

Scott Benjamin: Was it plastic or what was it?

Ben Bowlin: It was a kind of plastic.

Scott Benjamin: A plastic, okay. I think I know what this is.

Ben Bowlin: What is it?

Scott Benjamin: Rapid prototyping. He had a 3D printer or it could be a stereolithography machine. There's a bunch of different types of this that are - possibilities, I guess. I'm not sure what type it was. I didn't see the program, but yeah, it's possible to take a computer program and print a three dimensional design, either in plastic of some kind, a composite material, resin, which really I guess is kind of like hardened plastic. Someone's going to argue that, but resin. Or you can do paper. You can do wood. Wood is a little different. You can do metal, which is crazy. You can print metal.

Ben Bowlin: Wow.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it's pretty unique, but it's becoming less and less unique, I should say because the technology is becoming more and more, I guess, available, which is really cool. It's an interesting technology and I'll tell you, it's saving a lot of time in certain circumstance.

Ben Bowlin: But okay, one question. I know you pretty much explained it and I'm sorry if I have to go back to this.

Scott Benjamin: That's okay. I haven't really explained anything yet.

Ben B owlin: Well, pardon my French, Scott.

Scott Benjamin: Sure.

Ben Bowlin: But what the hell is this if not magic? This is amazing. It really is.

Scott Benjamin: It is magic. It really is. To be able to print to 3D - now, I've watched a lot of videos of this and I've seen this in action, really, when I worked at Chrysler.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, yeah?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, I did. I've seen engine parts being created with an SLA process, which is the hardening of resin.

Ben Bowlin: Is that like layers?

Scott Benjamin: It's layers, yeah. We'll talk about how it's made, but I've actually seen the parts used on a working engine. So you've got a hardened resin material - depends on what the part is - you can't do this with every part. It depends on what's flowing through there and the heat involved, etc., the part, but I have seen these rapid prototype pieces actually being run on a working engine. It's incredible.

Ben Bowlin: So weird.

Scott Benjamin: Later, we'll talk about some of the benefits of this and who's using it, and it'll make perfect sense to you who's using it right now. There are a lot of people using it. I shouldn't say that this is the only people that are interested in this or using it, but there is one particular application that applies to what we usually speak about here that will make perfect sense to you when we get to it, okay?

Ben Bowlin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: And don't let me forget it, but it's in my notes; I'll remember.

Ben Bowlin: I won't. Listeners, you can't see this, but I'm making this very specific hand motion, so Scott, if we've forgotten it before then, I'll make that hand motion.

Scott Benjamin: That's all right. I guess we should talk about basically how this whole thing works because we're describing something that's tough to understand, really, just listening to you and I talk. Probably best, as in a lot of cases, is for listeners to find a website, take a look at this in action. YouTube has a lot of videos of this, and it's not just - I mentioned SLA - it's not just that. There are several different types of this, and you can search for rapid prototyping that's called stereolithography, which is SLA, selective laser centering, which is SLS.There's fuse deposition modeling, which is FDM. There's paper lamination technology, which is a little different like I said, but still same effect. There's laminated object technology. There's three-dimensional plotting, which I'm convinced that that's what we're talking about, but it was in a list of rapid prototyping. Then there's digital light processing, which is DLP, and patternless casting molding. There's also ink jet technology, which is used to create steel parts. You can use an ink jet printer to create steel parts.They're very small and it's not your normal ink jet printer, of course, but its ink jet technology applied to powdered metal, and the powdered metal is printed in this three-dimensional form and you can actually build three-dimensional pieces. The pieces that I saw were chess pieces, and they're very, very tiny. They used the tip of a pen in the foreground to show you the scale of these pieces. They're very detailed, extremely detailed, and they look like normal-sized chess pieces, but they're very small, a couple of millimeters in height, really, and I don't know if they do that for quickness, to get the design, to make sure it's accurate, or if that's really going to be the size of the parts. I'm not sure.

Ben Bowlin: Or tiny chess competitions. Did I knock that one out?

Scott Benjamin: That's good. Yeah, tiny chess games, yeah.

Ben Bowlin: Because that's what we cover on here, is automobiles and tiny chess games.

Scott Benjamin: Tiny chess players.

Ben Bowlin: But okay, I've got something if you want. I can breakdown very briefly how Mr. Leno himself, how his system works.

Scott Benjamin: I would love to hear that.

Ben Bowlin: Want to hear that?

Scott Benjamin: Yes.

Ben Bowlin: Okay. So he has two items that he uses that are the chief members of his process here. First, he has a 3D scanner, which the brand name is NextEngine, and this scanner is able to generate a 3D image of the part without having to - normally, if you want to use a 3D printer, you go into AutoCAD or an engineering program, and you build it.

Scott Benjamin: A 3D modeling program.

Ben Bowlin: Yes, exactly. So with this, and because he's working with vehicles that usually have the part already, it's just broken, he just scans that on every single angle and then he inputs this information into his Dimension 3D printer, and then over, I think, a period of three hours, it builds the part. And the part that it builds actually is, as we said, it's printed from a plastic, so it's not quite done.The third and final step is they use this plastic fabricated part as a mold to cast the actual metal part. He first started using this with a 1907 White Steamer, I believe is the name of the vehicle, and as we said before, it had this certain heater that you couldn't get anywhere, no matter who you were. So instead, they fabricated this part and they made a brand spanking new one and now he is a proud owner of one of the, sad to say; a few working steamers around.

Scott Benjamin: He's got a few steam cars, I know, so this thing could come in handy. And obviously, it's not just for steam cars, but good luck trying to find parts for a 1907 White Steamer vehicle. Good luck. But this particular system, that you're talking about works well for scanning parts that are there but broken. If he has parts that are downright missing, he would have to have somebody design that part, which could then be fabricated using the same system, right? He could have somebody design the part to the right specs, and then build that part, and then cast and form that part, which would then be able to be used, as well, so there's another way around this. If there's a missing piece, he could still create a piece, and this can be done with even body panels. It depends on the size of the machine that you have. If you have a machine that's not very large - this is a good time for me to mention this. We're talking about some pretty high-end machinery here.This is expensive stuff, no matter what type you're talking about. I'm sure the prices vary greatly between the types of machines, but I'm guessing the paper lamination machine is probably not as expensive as the metal laser-centering machine because you're talking about metal versus paper, and I just don't know. I'm totally guessing.

Ben Bowlin: I've got, actually, a couple of numbers real quick.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, please do.

Ben Bowlin: Now, regular listeners and you, my podcast partner, know that I am a cheap person. I have dealt with that, and you have stuck with me through it and I appreciate that, so naturally, one of the first things I did was look to see what the bottom line was for this hardware. The printer you can get new. You can get a smaller version of this printer new for just under 15 grand.That's not counting, of course, the scanner, which is just under $3,000.00. They say $2,995.00, so it looks like less. That's plastic, so I guess we could assume that's the middle ground. Hopefully, paper would be a bit less expensive, and we could assume metal would be a bit pricier.

Scott Benjamin: Okay. All right. I'm holding a piece of paper and I'm probably smirking, if you can tell.

Ben Bowlin: You look a bit smug.

Scott Benjamin: I found another 3D printer. The restriction on this one, though, is that this is a desktop 3D printer, though, and how cool would that be? To have a 3D desktop printer? It's relatively small, but you've got to remember what you're getting here. You've got to remember that you're able to print to 3D, and if this size application fits your needs, then you're in luck. It has a build volume - now, the build volume is what's important here, I guess. It tells you that the size of the object that you can build, the maximum size, and the maximum size of this particular 3D printer that I'm going to mention here is 5x5x5, so 5 inches wide, depth, and height. That's not terribly bit, but you've got to remember for it to sit on your desk, that's pretty good. We're not talking about a big shop item where you're going to be making door panels or something like that, or an engine block. The entire printer size is only 25x20x20, is the size of the machine, so it's kind of like, I guess, maybe a microwave?

Ben Bow lin: Yeah, about a microwave.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, something like that, so you can make these 5x5x5 pieces inside this microwave-sized item that can sit on your desk, and it makes it out of composite plastic. Of course, they're durable parts, they're sandable, they're paintable, which most of these that we're talking about are. You can sand them, paint them, and use them for display objects.There's no need to infiltrate the items, which you like need to use on several of them again. They make sort of fragile parts. The parts are heated. The material is like a powdered material, it's heated, layered, and then they have to be infiltrated with like maybe a glue or plastic polymer of some kind to make them sturdy. With this particular item, you don't have to do that. This printer. The price, get this, less than $5,000.00.

Ben Bowlin: What?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, man.

Scott Benjamin: Less than $5,000.00. Remember, you're 5x5x5, so if that fits your needs, less than $5,000.00 could have a desktop 3D printer for you.

Ben Bowlin: That's a crazy deal. That's awesome.

Scott Benjamin: Pretty amazing. When you think about it, if that does meet your needs or if you're trying to satisfy client needs with it, it could be very valuable because I can't imagine the difference between being able to hold a prototype part in your hand versus a printout of something, a printout of your part, before you're ever able to produce it, or just looking at a model on a computer screen. Being able to hold that part in your hand and see how it works, and measure it and get the feel for the part, I think that's extremely valuable.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. And when we say this is useful, obviously, the applications go beyond just the world of automobile enthusiasts, so who else could use this?

Scott Benjamin: Oh, yeah, there's a lot of different uses. Of course, we're talking about automobile manufacturing, which is one. It's number one on my list, of course, but engine parts, pistons, bearings, whatever you need to make, intake manifolds, exhaust manifolds, whatever, entire engine blocks. I've seen engine blocks done in this before, where all the cooling jackets and everything are in place. They can test it for flow if they wanted to.

Ben Bowlin: That's crazy.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it's amazing. It really is.

Ben Bowlin: Is that - not to interrupt with too much of a change, but remember how you were telling me, I don't know if we were on air, but you were mentioning to me one time the friend of yours who works on fabricating classic auto parts.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, he was a locator. He located parts, so he was calling everywhere, online, and just trying to find the parts, having them shipped to him and then refurbishing them. They're factory, however, did create metal parts, and I don't know if they used a system like this or not, but I know that they were casting or pouring engine cylinder heads and things like that, but I have no idea if they were doing it this way or if they were doing it kind of the old fashioned way, making a sand cast.I'm just not exactly sure. I couldn't say positive. That was a good call back there. You've got a good memory. So there are a few other applications of this, and there's probably hundreds of others. I'll just mention a few, but inventors, of course, the desktop item that we just talked about, they might be able to use something like this because it's a way to make relatively cheap and fast parts.It may take hours or days to build this part, and it only took a couple of hours, maybe in the case that you saw, but depending on the size of the part, it could take a couple of days because you're talking about layers or slices of these items that are sometimes 1/1000th of an inch thick. So if you're making a large item, you can imagine that a 1,000 layers or more, 7,000 layers per inch, would take a long time to build that up.

Ben Bowlin: Definitely.

Scott Benjamin: Another application is, of course, toys. I've seen a lot of those being made.

Ben Bowlin: I didn't even think about that.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, a lot of toys are made that way. The chess pieces that we mentioned earlier.

Ben Bowlin: And here we are without our own line of a Scott, Ben, and Jerry action figures.

Scott Benjamin: That's the thing - you could easily make that. You could easily do that, and that's what's incredible about this, is that things like that are possible now.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: And, I guess, sort of within reach if you're talking about relatively low dollar amounts. I know they're still expensive, but compared to what they were.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, to the typical overhead.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that's right. Let's see. There are jewelry applications. You could custom make these fittings, and I don't know if they would use it the same way to make a mold, kind of what you're talking about, to then cast metal, or they could actually make metal jewelry.

Ben Bowlin: They could, yeah.

Scott Benjamin: Which is pretty amazing? Just have it appear in this machine. This is really cool. I got kind of hooked on this yesterday. I was looking at artwork. You could make metal sculptures, and a lot of these, as it turns out, are really complex mathematical designs, and they're making them out of metal or plastic, but the metal ones are really cool. They're about $500.00 each, and they're pretty big, but they're works of art.They're really, really interesting designs, and these just fantastic geometric designs that you can display them as fine art in your house, really. They're sculptures. You can light them in various ways, put them on shelves as knickknacks, whatever you want to do, but they're really interesting to look at. I'd say give that a shot if you get a chance.

Ben Bowlin: That's incredible, man. If we can just get a hold of one of these metal fabricators, then we can go full-time into the art business.

Scott Benjamin: That's right. We could, I guess. As long as you can keep coming up with these fantastic mathematical - when I say that, it doesn't sound all that exciting, right, just mathematical shapes, but I tell you, you've never seen anything like these shapes. They're unbelievable. Take a look at them.

Ben Bowlin: I think maybe a good example because I completely agree, if you haven't seen them it's very difficult to describe, but maybe one of the ones we're talking about here is the Moebius Strip. There are sculptures of that, right?

Scott Benjamin: Correct. That's actually one I have seen. It's unbelievable. They're really, really cool. The thing is, they are designs that were previously unable to be made in the way that they're made. These are single pieces. They're one continuous piece of metal that's been fused together. No, I shouldn't say that. They're layered, however, they are fused into one continuous piece of metal, so you don't have seams or you don't have pouring casting edges, I guess. There are no seams. They are designs and shapes that were, like I said, were previously impossible because you couldn't get a tool or something in there to cut that design or that shape out of a single block of material. When you think about that in car design, that makes this whole world of possibilities open up because then you're able to go for strictly function and maybe the form doesn't have to match what it did in the past. I can be something completely unique.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, man, nice.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. If you really, really sit down to think about it, some of the reasons that parts are designed the way they are, are because of the tooling or the way that they had to make the part. Now, if you could make that part in a different way that opens up a whole new world.

Ben Bowlin: I did not even think about that. What a good point.

Scott Benjamin: Well, it's possible. This is really cool, and again, we're getting off track here. There's one more that I want to mention, but I've seen a lot of people making bearings with this, and what's fascinating about that is that you're talking about a captured bearing inside of a housing, a bearing shell, and then when you're done with this, if it's the powder design that hardens the powder, you're able to kind of break t hose free and you can actually make a working, spinning bearing that actually you can turn in your hand. Take it right out of the printer and operate this thing.

Ben Bowlin: Weird.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it's really cool. You can do that with metal. Some of these require a light acid bath to dissolve some of the material that's used as like a bracing material or, I guess - I don't know what I want to say here - like a material that's used to prop something up while it's being made. It's just part of a support structure.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, yeah. You can see that sometimes because there's a tray that people pull out some of these fabricated materials from, so they have to crack it off and there's a cleaning process.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that's right, and that's the support structure you're seeing, so it can't lay completely flat on the table when you make it. They have to prop it up. It looks almost like a latticework that's easily dissolved or cut away, so that's part of a lot of these designs, but it's really relatively minor.

Ben Bowlin: What's our last user?

Scott Benjamin: The last one in this one is really cool - biomedical devices. So in the medical profession, let's say that you need a new hip. They are able to make an MRI scan or CT scan and exactly match your bone structure. They can make a model of your hip, and then build a piece to fit that exactly. Or I've also seen this used for facial reconstruction, so they can make unbelievable models. I've seen this before.You're missing part of a cheek or an eye socket or something, and they can reconstruct that material with whatever safe material that they use inside your body, I'm not sure what that is exactly, if it's metal or what it is, but these are precise biomedical models that can be used to build quality parts. Extremely accurate and custom. With these scans, used in combination with an MRI scan or CT scan or I don't know if there are other ones or not, but precise medical models and that's really important.And not only that, they can use it for surgery planning. Let's say your skull. They could make a model of just your skull, Ben, and figure out what the best approach is to get to a tumor or a growth, or whatever happens to be there.

Ben Bowlin: That's mind blowing.

Scott Benjamin: It is. It's unbelievable.

Ben Bowlin: That could seriously save some lives. What would you say are some of the advantages or drawbacks of these fabricators, just as it pertains to autos?

Scott Benjamin: As it pertains to autos? I thought about this, and the advantages and the drawbacks? Cost is an advantage right now because it's a relatively cheap way to try a new part on a vehicle, and see how it fits, see how it looks, see how it reacts, I guess. Drawbacks? I don't know if there are any. I guess for the general public, maybe cost at this point because I don't have $5,000.00 for a printer right now to build something like this, but I don't even know if I'd call that a drawback because $5,000.00 that's unbelievable when you think about what you can do with this thing. What do you think a drawback might be? I don't know if you do know or not, but -

Ben Bowlin: I've got one. It's a little bit weird. Come with me here and see if we can figure this out. One thing that I noticed, there is a bit of a division among car collectors, especially very sophisticated collectors, celebrities, or people who have a lot of money invested in this, some car collectors want their vehicles to be completely original, completely vintage. And as we move forward because I think this technology will probably continue to proliferate, the price points will probably go down, who knows? The desktop version now is $5,000.00. How much before its $3,000.00 or even $2,500.00 and a lot of people would get it?

Scott Benjamin: $2,500.00 and a bigger build capability.

Ben Bowlin: Sure, and more bang for your buck. And then at that point, as it becomes easier and easier to fabricate vehicles and to build a brand new Model A or something, the collectors and the curators of American auto history or world auto history are going to have a tougher and tougher time trying to figure out how to find the original pieces after a certain number of the new pieces comes out, especially since the people making these new pieces are doing their level best to make them indistinguishable.

Scott Benjamin: You're talking about actual metal fabrication and using the materials that were originally used for that vehicle?

Ben Bowlin: Right.

Scott Benjamin: I understand. Yeah, that may be a future concern, you're right. It would be a long time from now and you would have to be - yeah, I think if people are making exact replicas of cars, that's a big project, but why not? Why isn't it possible?

Ben Bowlin: Well, let me level with you here, Scott. I tried really hard to find a drawback. That was the best I could come up with.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, but there aren't many. I know we're kind of wrapping up here. There's one more thing.

Ben Bowlin: Lay it on me.

Scott Benjamin: I had mentioned that there's one kind of big thing that I wanted to talk about here at the end. Formula I is using this in the wind tunnel, and here's why this is important because they're able to make aerodynamic changes in the wind tunnel within a matter of hours now, to the bodies of the cars, to gain speed and down force or lift, or whatever they need at the moment.This is unbelievable to watch this in action because within hours, they can make new body panels to actually try on the vehicle in the wind tunnel, based on the data that they're receiving from that testing that day. So maybe it's overnight. Maybe they have to run a part overnight, depending on the size of this part, but they have these large SLA, which is the stereolithography-type of device. We didn't really talk about that one, but that's the one that's resin material and it's cured with a laser, and it's got this big bath of material. It's really cool. But they use stereolithography and for them to be able to do that so quickly, every team really should have this. I don't know if every team does or not, but to keep a level playing field, I suppose. I was watching the BMW team use theirs - not in person, just online - wish I could see it in person.

Ben Bowlin: One day.

Scott Benjamin: Maybe some day. It was just remarkable how quickly they're able to adapt to what they need.

Ben Bowlin: That's crazy.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it's really, really cool. I think it's a really interesting application of this technology, and I'm sure that other racing teams are doing this. I know that Formula I, of course, they've got a pile of money. That's probably why they've got it right now, and I would guess that other racing teams do this, as well, not only with aerodynamic pieces, but engine parts, as well. Every little bit counts.

Ben Bowlin: Yes, I completely agree and we don't know where the future of this technology could end because they could use it in car accidents, or if you own one of these printers in the future, when you can print out a new taillight casing or something.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, I see. When you said you could use it in car accidents, I didn't know what you were -

Ben Bowlin: No, not to cause them.

Scott Benjamin: I'm not sure, yeah. So I see what you're saying. You could fix your own car; print your own parts.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. And that's just - I just made that up now.

Scott Benjamin: I think speed may be the future of this technology because right now, with the time it takes, does take a long, but when you look at it relatively, maybe not because you're creating something brand new, but speed, if they could speed this up so that you could make, I guess, bigger, faster parts, that sounds really cool to me.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, who knows? You know what, Scott? I guess that's all the time we have for today, but I've got to tell you, I'm excited about this. We might even have to come back to this topic as it develops, but to our listeners out there, you guys, we hope that you found this as fascinating as we do. If you have any questions about the future of anything automotive, please feel free to send us an email at

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