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3D printing or CNC machining—which process is more suitable for automotive light parts?

3D printing is being used in an increasing number of automotive applications, and it can be used for everything from internal components to the entire chassis. Even tires can be 3D printed. The technology offers many advantages, including lighter parts, less scrap, faster manufacturing times, lower costs, and more. But there is one part of the car where the 3D printing effect is not ideal: the lights. Since 3D printing is a layer-by-layer process, the final product will often show these layer lines.

Of course, there are exceptions. Certain materials and post-processing techniques essentially eliminate any evidence of layer lines on glass and plastic parts. But in general, 3D printing is not the technology of choice for achieving perfectly clear surfaces. For this purpose, most manufacturers turn to CNC machining. CNC machining carves objects from solid blocks so there are no layer lines, resulting in clean components that can be used for headlights, taillights, or interior lights in cars.

Automotive lights are typically CNC machined from polymethylmethacrylate, or PMMA, also known as acrylic glass. It is lightweight, shatterproof, and ideal for automotive applications. And it is clear that processing it does not affect the quality.

Chinese company 3ERP does both 3D printing and CNC machining, and offers a wide range of CNC machining services, including milling, turning, electrical discharge machining (EDM), wire EDM, as well as surface grinding. The company has precision 3-, 4-, and 5-axis CNC machining centers to meet customer needs, including automotive applications.

“Carburetor housings, suspension components, axles, bearing caps, and engine housings are all manufactured using CNC equipment,” the company said in a recent blog post. “The machining of acrylic/acrylic PMMA for car lights, exterior lights, and interior lights is another example of how CNC machining can be utilized when the automotive industry produces parts.”
As 3ERP points out, the advantages of CNC machining in automobile manufacturing include multi-axis linkage to obtain tortuous machining of prototypes; high accuracy and good product consistency; a high degree of automation, resulting in low labor intensity; and CNC also ensures simplicity and efficiency.

In addition to 3ERP’s selection of advanced equipment, the company also has experienced engineers capable of handling complex and precision parts for a variety of industries, including automotive. It also offers fast turnaround times; on average, it can return quotes within 24 hours, with parts shipped in seven days or less, with a 99% lead time and quality rate.

So while 3D printing may be taking over more and more of the automotive industry, it’s unlikely to take over entirely. CNC machining has its place in the automotive manufacturing industry, and it won’t be giving up anytime soon. Automotive lighting is just one example where CNC machining has clear advantages, but as we’ve seen in many cases, 3D printing and CNC machining complement each other and work better together than apart.

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