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Power of 3-D Printed Parts

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You may have seen it yourself. A car comes into the shop with only minor parts of the headlight damaged. Most commonly, the parts are lugs or brackets attaching the headlight to the car body. If the broken pieces are still available, small damages are repaired using a method like two part bonding agents or plastic fuse welding with a heat gun. 

Typically, however, the headlight is thrown away and goes to a landfill.

A traditional repair would require the manufacture of a new lug and a skilled technician who can make the vehicle look brand new. 

Parts solutions have long been explored in the collision repair industry and recently, Tradiebot Industries and Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia,  have partnered to bring 3-D printing and augmented reality (AR) to the collision repair industry. 

While the research is taking place in Australia, 3-D printed parts could affect collision repair shops in the U.S. as well and possibly offer a more cost-effective solution. 

The collaboration sees the application of a new in-house formulated polypropylene composite material, developed by Swinburne materials scientists, for the manufacture of replacement plastic bumper bar taps and headlight lugs. 

"While our immediate goal is to develop a commercially useful repair technology for headlights, the developed solution can be extended to any type of plastic repair," says Mats Isaksson, lead of the project. "A future extension might be a fully automatic repair unit."

The project’s parts are not available yet to collision repair shops, he says. The project began in 2018 and, by the end of 2019, the team will deliver a fully working demonstrator that can do repairs with verified quality.

Dr. Kristan Marlow, director of engineering and operational technology for Tradiebot, says one of the biggest challenges for the project comes from convincing others that repairs with 3-D printing are  going to an aspect of the collision repair supply chain sooner or later. 

Evaluating the Effectiveness 

3-D printing is a process currently being used in industries like aviation, aerospace and automotive OEMs for the printing of end-use components. The process could allow plastic parts that were previously not repairable to now be repaired. 

“This is a win-win for all key stakeholders in the repair process,” Marlow says. “More parts will be repaired, generating more work and possible jobs, new skill-sets will be created, repairs will sped up and cost could be reduced as well.”

Isaksson says that the researchers are currently only targeting a percentage of headlights where the damages are minor, such as 1–3 damaged lugs and brackets. The 3-D printed parts will be significantly faster and cheaper than ordering replacement parts.

In fact, a fully automated repair could be performed in less than an hour at only a minor material cost.

3-D parts can be as strong as the original part. It depends on the material and the way the repair is done, Isaksson says. A major part of the current project is targeting the development of their own 3-D printable polypropylene-like material to match the physical properties and performance of the original parts. This process involves matching thermal, UV, tensile, flexural and impact properties for identical behavior. 

Marlow says the goal is to have each Repairbot running at high capacity when deployed, completing 6–8 repairs per 8-hour cycle. Minimal training would be required for a technician to be skilled in operating the 3-D printing repair systems.

Inside the Industry Response

According to Isaksson, the insurance companies have been very supportive of the project because it will reduce the cost of a repair.  

Tradiebot’s goal, he says, is to get OEMs involved in this approach. 

“It’s a great opportunity for OEMs to look to the future of additive manufacturing in repairs and play a role in protecting the environment from these waste parts where possible,” Isaksson says. “As far as I know, there is not a set price on what these lugs could cost, so OEMs could potentially make more profit providing an additive repair service like this instead of manufacturing, storing, transporting and packaging a new part.”

Marlow says Tradiebot is looking into a fee-for-service–type business model in which the digital repair files would be supplied on behalf of a licensee. Licensees could include OEMs, independent part suppliers, or large repair groups.

Each Repairbot system will be managed centrally by Tradiebot. 

“The only cost to the general repairer will be in purchasing the repaired item, which can be a fraction of the cost of a new part,” she says. “There would also be a labor cost of handling the repair or repair process that we estimate to be around 20 minutes.”

Since this is a new model that is a disruptive solution and new to the market, and there is no historical value of the repair parts or repair lugs, Marlow says, that such repair methods could be more profitable to an OEM than traditional sales of physical parts. Traditional sales of parts include a cycle of manufacturing, packing, shipping, warehouse, transporting and then sold. Old and broken parts are then sent to waste. 

“Our repair solution eliminates most of this waste, ultimately benefiting the environment,” Marlow says. 

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