Additive manufacturing aligns with the needs of the automotive industry, driving advances in vehicle design. Serial production is a reality today in additive manufacturing (or 3-D printing) as the technologies under this umbrella have advanced to a point where end-use parts can be made of both metal and plastic materials, ready to be put to use in real-world environments. The automotive industry has been a major adopter, with automotive OEMs among the first to install 3-D printers — some 30 years ago, in fact, Ford purchased the third 3-D printer ever made.
A 2014 Deloitte study pointed to two major areas of influence for 3-D printing in automotive applications: as a source of product innovation and as a driver of supply chain transformation. Over the past nearly half-decade, these predictions have shown to be spot-on as new vehicle models come out faster and sleeker, with digital supply chains reshaping logistics.
Some of the best-known benefits of additive manufacturing align precisely with what automotive OEMs are looking to deliver: faster development cycles, part consolidation, lightweighting, new and custom geometries.
When new models come out annually, any time shaved off the development cycle is a leg up on the competition. Today, 3-D printing is speeding design and prototyping processes, creating unique tools for each production line, and making an increasing number of end-use parts for standard and customized vehicles, as well as on-demand spare parts manufacture.
3-D printing in automotive manufacture is on the rise, with big names putting the technology to use for decades and new applications developing in serial production.
Ford’s first 3-D printer, bought in 1988, paved the way for the company’s now 90 installed 3-D printers in use in global operations. Applications range from spare parts for its own production lines to 3-D printed brake parts for the 2019 Shelby Mustang GT500. Just this week, Ford announced a $45 million investment into its Advanced Manufacturing Center housing 23 3-D printers. The team is well aware of the time- and cost-savings possible by integrating 3-D printing into its manufacturing workflow and shares a glimpse in the latest announcement, stating, “One application currently under development has the potential to save the company more than $2 million.”
This unnamed application isn’t an error of omission; 3-D printing remains something of a ‘secret sauce’ for automakers. While the biggest names in vehicle manufacture have long been using 3-D printers, it’s been considered a competitive advantage with detailed use cases relatively scarce. This veil of secrecy is beginning to lift, though, as the technology becomes more ubiquitous and trusted in production environments and transforms into a selling point in itself.
BMW recently reported that it had 3-D printed its one millionth component in series production since 2010, having been working with additive manufacturing since 1990 for prototyping and development use. That millionth part, a window guide rail for the BMW i8 Roadster, was created using HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology; up to 100 of these parts can be produced in 24 hours.
Volkswagen too is focusing on enhancing operations with 3-D printing. With desktop 3-D printers a mainstay for creating tooling, jigs and fixtures, larger machines are now bringing metal 3-D printing into end-use part production. The company has announced work on metal components with technologies from HP for mass production and Additive Industries for advanced tooling and spare parts.
A complete vehicle will probably not be manufactured by a 3D printer any time soon, but the number and size of parts from the 3D printer will increase significantly. Our goal is to integrate printed structural parts into the next generation of vehicles as quickly as possible. In the long term, we expect a continuous increase in unit numbers, part sizes and technical requirements – right up to soccer [ball]-size parts of over 100,000 units per year,” said Dr. Martin Goede, Volkswagen’s Head of Technology Planning and Development, upon the announcement of integrating HP Metal Jet technology into operations.
Bugatti, Chrysler, GM, Honda, Kia, Porsche, Toyota — the list goes on as traditional automotive OEMs embrace 3-D printing. Last year, Daimler announced a spare parts program to 3-D print plastic replacement parts for its Daimler Trucks North America business, as well as a metal 3-D printing program for its Mercedes-Benz Trucks operations. Audi, with long experience in 3-D printing, established a Competence Center for 3D Printing in November 2016 and has continued to invest in the technology, such as through a metal-focused partnership with EOS.
Additive manufacturing is also enabling entirely new approaches to automotive manufacture, with young companies introducing new vehicular concepts centering around the technology. A fully 3-D printed car emerged a few years ago as Local Motors’ Strati showcased the power of large-scale 3-D printing, for example, while the Divergent 3D Blade takes 3-D printing to the supercar.
Racing companies have also been speeding ahead with their use of 3-D printing, with the likes of McLaren and Team Penske adopting the technology. Parts like steering wheels fitted exactly to a specific driver’s hands and grip and helmet attachments for cameras are making the driving experience more streamlined and personalized, while prototypes for new designs to zip to the finish line remain a major use in Formula One and NASCAR. In racing more than any other area of automotive, specifics are likely to remain under wraps as the competitive advantages enabled by unique designs come down to the millisecond as every extra ounce of weight or aerodynamic drag matters.
3-D printing will continue to become ever more enmeshed in automotive applications. Engineers and line workers are coming to trust and depend on additive manufacturing more every day. With millions of parts already 3-D printed and in use, the automotive industry is set to continue to pick up the pace of adoption. The road ahead is clear for more automotive 3-D printing as the technology is both competitive advantage and, increasingly, necessary for keeping up with the competition.