Don’t be surprised if Japanese OEMs lead the way on what my be the next big technology leap in mass-market auto design—bodies made with advanced plastic composites like those used in the Boeing Dreamliner still under development. Boeing’s sole supplier for the enormous amounts of composites required for the plane is Toray Industries, which co-located a production plant next to Boeing’s assembly factory near Seattle, WA. Toray is rapidly ramping up capacity to meet demand for the 787 and other projects, including future Airbus planes. Toray recently established a $24 million automotive center in Nagoya, Japan to develop advanced composites for cars. Its main mission will be to make the new lightweight systems more affordable. Use of carbon-fiber reinforced panels in the body of the new Tesla (all-electric) roadster adds $3,000 in cost per car—way more than cash-strapped American OEMs (and customers) can afford now. Regular fiberglass composites, such as those used on the Corvette, are less expensive, but much heavier.
Alcoa has unveiled a new manufacturing and materials technology for making aluminum sheet, aimed especially at automotive, industrial, and packaging applications. If all its claims are true, this is a major breakthrough, and may convince more automotive engineers to use aluminum.
NASA has just installed a giant robot to help in its research on composite aerospace materials, like those used for the Orion spacecraft. The agency wants to shave the time it takes to get composites through design, test, and manufacturing stages.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is working with architects Foster + Partners to test the possibility of using lunar regolith, or moon rocks, and 3D printing to make structures for use on the moon. A new video shows some cool animations of a hypothetical lunar mission that carries out this vision.
If there's one thing 3D printing's good for, it's customization. New Balance Athletic Shoe Company has begun using 3D printing to make customized spike plates for its running shoes made for members of its Team New Balance runners. They provide better traction and shave off a tiny bit of weight.
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