Mercedes-Benz proved early August it can now 3D-print metal parts in small batches, making it one of the first manufacturers to implement 3D-printing into its production process, and the first to 3D-print with metal.

The German automaker started 3D-printing small batches of more than 30 plastic replacement parts mid-July 2016 because of the efficiencies and cost-savings found relative to using traditional production methods. The 3D-printing of metal thermostat covers for older Mercedes trucks and Unimogs is noteworthy given the infancy of 3D-printing of metallic objects in mainstream manufacturing.

By 3D-printing, Mercedes-Benz can produce only as many parts as needed on demand, without having to store extra parts from a traditional production run in a warehouse, which takes up space and needlessly consumes time that could be better spent on other tasks.

Lowering the cost-per-part of small-batch items ultimately increases profitability, which is a clear win for the brand.

Like in any other type of 3D-printing – plastic or otherwise – thin layers of material are systematically added to the object being created based upon a pre-determined shape, applied by robotics. Given that Mercedes-Benz already has the designs for all of its parts, programing a 3D-printer to produce a part is as easy as plugging in the specific design and dimensions of each part, and letting the robotic 3D-printer do the work.

The metal thermostat covers are 3D-printed from aluminum-silicon powder; Mercedes-Benz’ 3D-printer uses high-powered lasers to heat and melt the aluminium-silicon as each layer is applied to the part, resulting in an aluminum-alloy final product.

Mercedes-Benz says the 3D-printed metal parts are as strong as their traditionally-produced analogues, with equivalent rigidity and build quality.

“With the introduction of 3D metal printing technology, Mercedes-Benz Trucks is reasserting its pioneering role among global commercial vehicle manufacturers,” said Andreas Deuschle, Head of Marketing & Operations at Mercedes-Benz Trucks.

“We ensure the same functionality, reliability, durability and cost-effectiveness with 3D metal parts as we do with conventionally produced parts.”

It’s not clear if, or how soon, Mercedes-Benz and other automotive manufacturers will turn to 3D-printing for the production of new-vehicle parts, but given the efficiencies of the futuristic manufacturing process, it appears to be a question of when, not if.

Other companies have dabbled with 3D-printing, particularly for the production of concept mock-ups and development parts, but Arizona-based Local Motors is the first to 3D-print the entire body of a vehicle, which it’s coined the “Strati,” in a clever nod to Latin, referencing the stratified, layered production method used to produce the vehicle.

(Mercedes-Benz)