UK companies are investigating technology that will allow motorists to have components custom-made at their local dealership.

MG Rover and Ford Premier Automotive Group are investigating technology to allow motorists to design and customise parts of their new car at a local dealership, where they could then be built on site.

The companies are taking part in a project led by Loughborough University, which also includes ejector seat specialist Martin Baker Aircraft, JCB Research, and Perkins Engines, to study the potential of rapid manufacturing.

The technology, which constructs components layer by layer from a 3D scan, could allow seats, handbrakes and steering wheels to be custom fitted to the driver’s shape, said Dr Richard Hague, head of Loughborough’s rapid manufacturing research group. ‘Our aim is that when you buy a new car, you could have custom-fitted parts. It isn’t that far away [from reality].’

Aircraft seats for fighter pilots and replacement limbs for amputees could also be made to exact personal measurements using the technique he said.

As part of the MANRM (Management, Organisation and Imple-mentation of Rapid Manufacturing) project, the Loughborough team will build a customised driver’s seat for MG Rover’s X-Power SV sports car. The researchers will be at MG Rover next week to take scans, and the seat will be built for an EPSRC exhibition to be held next month, where the SV will be shown.

According to Hague the scanning process is complicated. ‘If you want a mobile phone or a handbrake that fits your hand exactly you can’t just scan the hand, you have to scan something that has been “deformed” by it.’

However, although this element of the technology is almost ready for wider use outside existing niche applications in F1 and aerospace, further research into materials and processes is needed. In particular, research is required to ensure the mechanical properties can be guaranteed to be the same each time a part is produced, he said.

‘Although the geometry of the part will be the same, there is no guarantee that the mechanical properties of the part will be. So repeatability is the main issue to be resolved, to ensure people can confidently use the technology and know they are going to get a good- quality part, especially in structural applications, where you need to know what the properties will be.’

Despite this, the researchers have identified areas where the technology could initially be used, including interior car parts where they are hidden under the dashboard or under another material. As the technology progresses, more components will become suitable.

The work at MG Rover follows research the team carried out at Martin Baker Aircraft, where they developed a method of designing and building personalised ejector seats for RAF combat trainee pilots to improve comfort and safety.

Although the material constraints mean the technology could not yet be used to build production seats, the company now has a concept that will allow it to begin producing customised parts as soon as the technology is available, said Hague.

As rapid manufacturing requires no tooling, the technology could cut manufacturer’s costs, and ultimately help to reverse the trend of production moving to China and India, the researchers believe. The project is being funded by the DTI-backed Foresight Vehicle initiative.