Shop turns to 3D scanning and printing to replicate grille for rare vehicle
St. Ansgar, Iowa—Sometimes, lightning strikes twice. Tom Halvorson, owner of one-man shop Cutting Edge Collision, had already repaired his customer’s 2011 Saab 9-4x crossover in July. Among other damage, a deer hit had center-punched and destroyed the grille. A self-described “Saab geek” who’s owned more than 15 of the Swedish nameplate vehicles and has a close working relationship with nearby Meyer Garage — the oldest Saab dealership west of the Mississippi — Halvorson quickly learned how difficult some parts are to find for the rare model, even for such a simple repair.
Between only 600 and 750 were produced for the 2011 and early 2012 model years, Halvorson said, Saab’s last gasps two years after GM sold the brand as part of its bankruptcy and government bailout. And although major mechanical parts are shared with the Cadillac SRX and are readily available, trim and crash parts are specific to the 9-4x. Worst of all, Halvorson said, some replacement parts were never available, after the supplier destroyed the tooling in a payment dispute during Saab’s 2011 bankruptcy.
For that July grille repair, Halvorson tried the usual suspects: Meyer Garage and online searches, including used ones on Car-part.com. Meyer Garage owner Marty Adams, who’s active in the Saab owners’ community, advised Halvorson to join a Facebook group for Saab owners and try his luck there. He found a dealership that had purchased, among its containerloads of surplus parts, a prototype 9-4x grille set. That $1,200 grille had Sharpie marks on it, ostensibly to help fine-tune the tooling, and it needed refinishing, but it was otherwise identical to a new part.
So after the 9-4x owner was unfortunate enough to be in yet another deer collision in a few months, Halvorson had little hope that another replacement could be located. But he had an idea. For previous repairs, he’d ordered smaller 3D-printed plastic parts such as tow hook covers and jacking point covers from Shapeways.com for other models, available ready-to-order after a discontinued factory part was scanned.
The process, which uses rolls of filaments of different types of plastics, heated and extruded out of a tiny nozzle onto a flatbed layer-by-layer until the finished 3D form emerges, results in finished products for those small parts that fit well, with just a little prep work needed to get them smoothed with 220 sandpaper, primed, and painted.
“I thought, ‘This is pretty cool they can do that,’ he said. “So I started researching it some more and realized what these 3D printers are capable of. You can print about anything out of nothing if you have a file.”
Getting a grille duplicated by 3D scanning and printing was “the first and only option on this project,” he said. He borrowed a grille from Adams’ wife’s 9-4x, had it shipped to Laser Design in Minneapolis, and picked it up himself once the scanning was done, at a cost of $1,960.
The printing was done by one of the few companies in the country with a large enough printer at Xometry, in Maryland, at a cost of $1,170.
“Certain plastics print better than others, but they don’t have the durability you need,” he said. “There are about 40 different types of plastic you can have it printed out of. I did ABS/nylon on the grille, because the original was ABS and injection-molded. I wanted to keep the cost as low as possible, just because the amount of money we had invested in the scanning was unbelievable. They call it an ABS/nylon hybrid, and that prints nicely, so it turned out really well.”
Turnaround time for the grille project was about three and a half weeks, with a day required to scan and a day and a half for the company to “get the little bugs worked out” of the CAD file. Once he uploaded the file to Xometry's online portal, the company gave him a quote, with a guaranteed print time of five days.
Once the grille arrived, Halvorson took a couple of hours to sand, prime, and finish it, which required a Sikkens Autobase Plus Argentum (leafing aluminum) basecoat and clearcoat to duplicate the brushed chrome look, followed by a pebble-grain texture spray and matte black in the center.
With refinishing and drive time, the total cost for just the grille was $3,700, but it was feasible because the insurer did not want to total the vehicle, which booked at between $16,000 and $17,000, and the customer wanted to keep it. Other parts required, such as the bumper reinforcement and cover, are readily available, although Halvorson said he had to fill in the parking sensor holes with a plastic welder, as his customer's vehicle is not equipped with the sensors.
“If I could charge for gray hairs, it would be a lot more, because I have probably 30 to 40 hours in front of my computer and on the phone just getting this all lined up,” he said. It’s good to see it come to life, and I’m glad it worked out as well as it did.”
Halvorson said Laser Design told him that 3D scanning would not infringe on any patents, and he’s kept the CAD file so that he can reproduce the grille again, including for other shops that may run into the same predicament, at a cost of $1,800 to $2,000. At 24.5 inches, the grille is large enough that only a handful of printers in the country can accommodate it, he said. But for small parts, it opens up the market to more printers that can accommodate the process, which lowers the price, he said, and he’ll look again to the technology. As an example, the side grilles could be scanned for $900 and printed for as little as one third the cost of the center grille. “It's a great option. It’s almost limitless what you can produce.”