Volkswagen announced their European-market fix for their dirty, cheaty 1.6-liter TDI engines recently, and it’s a deceptively simple-looking tube with a bit of screen on one end. They give it the exciting name of flow transformer, which sounds like either something that opens a wormhole in space or something you can buy at Walmart for $15 that promises better gas mileage and doesn’t really do shit. But here’s an interesting idea: could they 3D print these parts?

That idea was brought to us by John Hauer, who, not surprisingly, CEO of 3DLT, a company that’s in the 3D printing service business. Mr.Hauer’s dreams of hopeful boat-ownership aside, this is a pretty compelling idea, and Hauer makes some interesting points about it in his article.

The part itself, as shown in that video there, is an ideal candidate for a 3D printed component: plastic, non-moving, no assembly needed after the printing. It’s also very possible VW used 3D printing when prototyping the repair part. (For a good explainer on how this thing works, and why it wasn’t on cars to begin with, check out this TTAC story. Please note again that this fix is for European 1.6-liter engines; a fix for the American ones hasn’t been announced yet.)

Volkswagen needs a metric crap-ton of these, and fast. Chances are, they’ll use conventional production methods to crank out a bunch of these screens-in-tubes. But would equipping dealers with 3D printers and making the parts that way be smarter?

Financially, no. No way, at least not yet. As Hauer himself says:

For an order of magnitude more money, Volkswagen could install 3D printers at each of its dealerships and print the parts on site.

Now, first you’re going to say, “3D printing will still cost more.” You’re right.

Yeah, it would be incredibly more expensive. But, you know, in the big picture, it may be worth it; suddenly, the story shifts from VW’s diesel shame to a revolution in the way auto parts are manufactured and distributed. If changes need to be made to improve the part, new designs are just uploaded to all the dealers. Volkswagen would be the first company to print on-demand parts, ready for installation in cars in the real world. That would be a big deal.

Hauer explains this benefit, and others:

Tesla challenged a lot of assumptions recently when, via software download, it enabled semi-autonomous driving.

Volkswagen has an opportunity to turn this crisis into opportunity by providing broader, faster access to innovation.

Will it be expensive? Hell yes!

But for VW, that’s a reality in any scenario.

The benefits of better, faster innovation and a digital supply chain would be a huge advantage for Volkswagen. Their speed-to-market would be unmatched. But beyond that, the transparency inherent in a digital solution would certainly help demonstrate the company’s commitment to open innovation as a means of resolving big problems.

And for VW, its stakeholders, and its customers, that’s priceless.

I pretty much agree with what he’s saying. It would be a substantial investment, but the payoffs could be worthwhile for Volkswagen, who are in pretty desperate need of something tangible and positive.

I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s interesting. What do you think?


Contact the author at jason@jalopnik.com.