Consulting firm Carlisle & Company predicts car dealerships may someday use their own 3D printers to make auto parts onsite. That raises a variety of issues. One of them: Who would need parts suppliers?

Carlisle is a consultant to vehicle manufacturer aftersales divisions.  Clients include Ford, General Motors, Caterpillar and Daimler trucks.

“We got interested in 3D printing about two years ago,” says Carlisle principal Brian Crounse who studies new technologies and their potential effects. “We’ve done sessions with our clients assessing its impact. It’s an ongoing effort.”

There are various types of 3D printers that essentially are computer-controlled industrial robots. They lay down successive layers of a material to create finished products that range from small and simple to large and complex.

Crounse, a mechanical engineering graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discusses the technology and its effect on the auto industry, including manufacturers and dealers.

Here’s an edited version of the Q&A.

WardsAuto: So where are we with 3D printing?

Crounse: It’s changing just about every day. We’ve found it’s still pretty early in terms of 3D printing directly affecting our clients. Clearly in the areas of vehicle design and prototyping, 3D printing is a very mature technology. It plays to the strengths of low fixed costs, low volume and complex parts.

But as we look at aftersales, we’re interested in printing parts or printing molds or tooling for parts. It’s still a little early. In economic restraints, 3D printing is fairly expensive. There also are concerns of comparability with conventional manufacturing techniques.

But it will come out faster than one might think.

WardsAuto: Why is that? Is it a question of explosive technology?

Crounse: On a curve ramp, things start out slowly, then reach an inflection point. You get fast penetration. Then, things tail off as you reach market saturation.

The ability for 3D printing to (mass produce auto parts) seems not in the too-near future. But that could change as the technology continues to evolve rapidly.

Something important is that 3D printing encompasses so many different technologies, each of which has different strengths, weaknesses and levels of maturity.

I just saw a printer that can print in plastic and carbon fiber. You print in metal for the strength and stiffness characteristics, but printing in metal is expensive. This machine can print a part that is just as stiff and strong for potentially a lot less money.