As thousands of automobile enthusiasts crowded in the Jacob Javits conference center in New York this past weekend for the 2013 edition of the International Auto Show, not many of them appreciated how the manufacturing of many of the cars being showcased is being transformed.

The Chicago Grid is reporting that Ford Motor Co. now makes extensive use of 3D printing in a factory in Dearborn, Mich. to design and eventually manufacture certain car parts.

We are obviously a long way from replacing processes that manufacture millions of car parts.  But from a prototyping perspective, 3D printing is already indispensable.  What’s not clear is how far 3D printing can go in terms of transforming the automobile parts market that is currently valued at hundreds of billions of dollars.

For those looking for a 3D printing opportunity, the auto parts aftermarket represents a great opening.  Whether it is people looking for parts for older cars that are now hard to find or enthusiasts building custom kit cars, there is always a mechanic somewhere looking for a car part that could be created using a 3D printer.  After all, if companies such as Ford are using 3D printers to design a part, there’s no reason someone shouldn’t be using 3D printing to replace it, so long as the material requirements match.

The challenge, of course, is that most of those mechanics have no idea how much their business could be expanded using parts that were developed for customers in less time than it would take for them to order a part and then have it shipped from some factory located half way around the globe.