by Cassandra Balentine
The adoption of three-dimensional (3D) printing or additive manufacturing technology is making its way into many settings. One area with big potential is automotive.
While prototyping is an obvious example of how 3D technologies benefit the automotive industry, it’s moving beyond this to aid in the creation of production and replacement parts. The advantages over traditional methods of part production include lighter weight parts, reduced part count, and the ability to quickly deliver parts on demand.
“The 3D printing industry has evolved in three distinct segments—rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing, and digital transformation. We’re seeing many players in the automotive industry—from OEMs to suppliers to software providers—shift their mindset from 3D printing as solely a prototyping option to a technology that can in fact deliver production parts. Many recognize the massive potential for a more robust, long-term digital manufacturing strategy,” offers David Tucker, global marketing development, 3D printing, HP Inc.
Above: BMW recently reached its one-millionth 3D printed part milestone. The part at hand was a windo guide rail for the new BMW i8 Roadster, which was produced using HP Multi Jet Fusion technology.
In Use in Automotive
3D printing technologies create a range of items for the automotive industry, from prototypes to production runs. Some items include molds, tooling, jigs, fixtures, and design concept models.
3D printing has been used for rapid prototyping of automotive parts for more than two decades. However, Colin Blain, principal advanced applications engineer, 3D Systems, Inc., points out that a more recent evolution is in the design and production of end use parts that leverage additive manufacturing to achieve lighter weight parts, reduce part count, quickly deliver limited edition parts, and increase part functionality and lifetime. “This has recently gone beyond research and development levels and is becoming more mainstream,” he shares.
Haim Levi, VP, manufacturing, defense markets, XJet, agrees, noting that 3D printing technologies are mainly used for making models and prototypes for aesthetic, ergonomic, and functional testing of designs in the automotive industry. For final end use parts, it is primarily used for components that come in short- to medium-run lengths of complex geometries where 3D printing is more efficient than traditional manufacturing methods.
Automotive OEMs and tier-one suppliers utilize 3D printing for product development in the form of 3D printed sand molds to shorten the product development timeline. More recently, Kirk Keithly, director of customer applications for indirect printing, Americas, ExOne, says OEMs and tier-ones apply significant resources to explore the use of 3D printing for production and replacement part applications. He says BMW, Ford, GM, Toyota, and Volkswagen announced related initiatives in the past year.
In regards to specific 3D technologies, the application determines the best method. For instance, Blain most commonly sees stereolithography technology used for rapid prototyping and wind tunnel test models. However, selective laser sintering delivers robust nylon parts that are viable not just for on-engine testing, but also as end use parts in many sectors of a vehicle. Meanwhile, powder bed fusion (PBF) technology delivers opportunities for highly innovative structural metal automotive parts that reduce weight, part mass, and maintain strength-to-weight ratios. In addition, PBF or metal additive—along with some key software products—now make it possible to improve injection mold insert design using conformal cooling channels that can significantly improve injection molding cycle times and reduce warping in parts.
Benefits of 3D in Automotive
Many advantages are associated with 3D printing in the automotive industry. These benefits include lighter and safer parts as well as reduced design cycle times, according to Bryan Ferrand, chief revenue officer, Mcor Technologies.
For model making and prototyping, 3D printing offers multiple iterations without tool making in a short amount of time. “That leads to a more efficient design process that can inspire more effective and creative solutions. For production parts, 3D printing delivers cost-effective short runs, faster processes, improved freedom of design for complex geometries, and customized parts,” offers Levi.
The common goals of every automotive OEM are—for the most part—achieved using additive manufacturing. Blain says these goals include improved fuel consumption with lighter weight parts, simplified supply chains through reduced part counts, faster time to market due to more immediate production of parts, and reduced service and recalls through better performing parts.
Hob Wubbena, VP of planning and marketing, Aleph Objects, Inc., points to many benefits of 3D technologies for automotive, including a reduction of time to market through rapid prototyping, manufacturing parts with complex geometrics, part designs that cannot be achieved by subtractive manufacturing, and parts comprised of composite plastics of multiple types of material with different inherent properties; reduction of inventory; and faster delivery due to print on demand centers near high population areas.
Industrial 3D manufacturing enables the automotive industry to innovate faster, leverage flexible manufacturing, reinvent supply chains, create new markets, and produce new parts in ways that were previously impossible, says Tucker. It also offers the ability to design application-specific parts for individual systems or models. “Additionally, dramatically lower costs are resulting in production-grade applications across the automotive industry. We’re already seeing major automotive manufacturers reap these benefits. For example, BMW recently reached its one-millionth 3D printed part milestone. The part at hand was a window guide rail for the new BMW i8 Roadster, which was produced using HP Multi Jet Fusion technology. This application reflects the increased speed 3D printing offers as HP technology enables BMW to produce up to 100 window guide rails within 24 hours,” he shares.
Keithly believes that generally speaking, additive manufacturing frees engineers to design parts that cannot be produced using traditional processes.
Of course, with benefits come challenges. While 3D printing methods are making inroads into automotive production, several issues are holding it back from mass adoption at this point in time.
One barrier for adoption is the development of new materials. Tucker cites a SmarTech Publishing report, which notes that the consumption of 3D printing materials by the automotive industry will reach around $530 million by 2021. “Over the last few years we’ve seen an increased focus on developing production-grade materials for automotive applications as 3D printing gravitates from prototyping to full production of final parts and products,” he states.
Keithly points out that printed parts must meet strength and other property requirements consistent with traditionally manufactured parts, which can be a challenge. “This is especially true for structural- and safety-related components, as 3D printed parts must go through rigorous qualification processes to ensure they consistently meet requirements. Material and process development is key.”
Ferrand says speed, accuracy, and surface finish are generally the inhibitors to adoption of 3D printing technology in the automotive industry. Otherwise, material performance in extreme conditions is another barrier to entry.
An additional challenge is educating engineers to understand the potential of 3D printed parts and the advantage they provide, explains Keithly.
“Sophisticated 3D printing is an emerging market for early adopters. Moving into selling to a majority of users in various industries requires overcoming a psychological hurdle of thinking 3D printing can’t fit their unique application or parts. 3D printing is another tool to add to their collection of options,” comments Wubbena.
Blain agrees, adding that while the adoption of additive manufacturing in automotive is increasing in velocity, the main reason it continues to take time for mass adoption is lack of experience by design engineers. “Success with additive requires a fresh new look at existing parts to establish what parts or assemblies would benefit. This is an area where additive can help in achieving their goals.”
For example, assemblies that require a lot of welding and multiple assembly checks could potentially be simplified into one monolithic part, thereby reducing assembly errors, assembly checks, and possibly part weight, offers Blain. A single, integrated part can also deliver vastly improved performance through integrated features, which are not possible with traditional manufacturing techniques and offer fewer points of failure.
Additionally, a correctly designed part can enable massively improved mean time between replacement and major overhaul. “In addition, your supply chain has just transformed from say 50 suppliers to just a few, combined with lower labor costs and associated with assembly work. Your parts list, bill of materials, and product lifecycle management data suddenly become much simpler,” he adds.
The availability of software that delivers designing for additive manufacturing tools is yet another barrier for broader adoption of 3D printing in the automotive industry. Blain says this is an issue that is quickly improving.
Levi admits that the overall workflow and ecosystem need improvements. Adoption is slowed by the process in the design and simulations of parts to be made, increased material choice, lower costs, improved part quality, and less post-print processing software.
Key Feature Sets
For those in the automotive industry looking into 3D printing technologies, several features and functions are attractive.
Wubbena says requirements include print volume or size, dimensional accuracy of 3D prints, mechanical properties—including tensile and impact strength, heat resistance, and printer reliability.
Tucker points out that depending on which parts automotive manufacturers are looking to produce, they have varying demands. “Automotive manufacturers such as BMW and Volkswagen are looking for 3D printers and technologies that allow for more design flexibility, reliability, and cost efficiency. Because 3D printed parts for automotive purposes need to be highly reliable, we must be able to efficiently produce parts that meet quality standards.”
Inevitably, Blain believes automotive manufacturers are looking for a function of reduced cost and increased speed with accurate and repeatable output. “As additive becomes more affordable and materials and technologies are able to rapidly deliver industrial-grade parts with six sigma repeatability, 3D printing is increasingly evaluated for the production of new and innovative automotive parts.”
For production applications, automotive manufacturers are looking for ways to improve automobile performance, making them lighter and less expensive to produce. “They are also looking for 3D printed products that are compatible with their current production technology,” notes Keithly.
For foundry applications, automotive OEMs and suppliers seek environmentally friendly binder systems. “Inorganic binders could become more prevalent as organic binder systems are subject to ever tightening environmental regulations,” comments Keithly.
In the long term, Levi says automotive manufacturers are looking to make more customized solutions while increasing efficiencies, lowering costs, and delivering products faster. “Shaving a few seconds or pennies off of a process in a production line can lead to huge cost savings for manufacturers because of the scale of operations.”
They are also looking to produce efficient, lighter weight designs and use lighter parts for vehicles that require less fuel consumption due to pressure from governments and environmental groups to deliver more environmentally friendly solutions. “To achieve that, they are looking for 3D printing to be a manufacturing process with higher quality, lower costs, faster time scales, complete design freedom, and a wide material choice,” adds Levi.
On the Horizon
As 3D printing technologies continue to evolve, they address common challenges and hit on new requirements. We’re just scratching the surface of its use in the automotive manufacturing industry—much more is ahead.
Over the next five years, one of the most exciting developments enabled by 3D printing will be entirely new design opportunities for manufacturers and engineers. “This is an opportunity for once-in-a-generation platform redesign as the industry moves toward the electrification of fleets and meets the demands for personalization and customized experiences,” shares Tucker.
Wubbena believes 3D printing is a paradigm shift. “It will expand as material science advances to enable various metals, plastics, and ceramics to be used within a single item. Printing large, composite material products will soon become feasible—faster than current approaches, and at a lower cost.”
Levi sees 3D moving towards medium-size run lengths, faster and more efficient processes, better final parts, lower total cost of ownership, higher personalization, and the inclusion of technology like artificial intelligence.
Ferrand comments that parts of a car structure, like the dashboard, will be designed to be lighter and stronger using generative design, then high-speed 3D printed solutions. Also, 3D printed tooling will optimize design and manufacture.
Automotive OEMs and tier-ones will continue to broaden the use of 3D printed parts—including new and replacement—where there is a cost and performance advantage to do so. “More work will be required to validate that these parts will perform consistently over the life of the vehicle,” cautions Keithly.
“The evolution of scalable, industrial-grade 3D printers is poised to rewrite how automotive OEMs will deliver vehicles in the future. Additive brings opportunities for mass customization of parts—something that could never be achieved with traditional production processes,” says Blaine. It brings opportunity for lighter weight parts with better functionality. It enables shorter run parts and the ability to produce a wide variety of parts simultaneously without the need for tooling, tooling changes, and the time involved with creating tooling. “The automotive OEMs that will win in the future will leverage these opportunities to deliver exactly what customers want at a price they can afford.”
A New Dimension
As we continue into the fourth industrial revolution, technologies like 3D printing change the way machinery and parts are engineered and produced.
Tucker believes that the automotive industry has been in a state of incremental innovation for several decades, and that it’s only recently that we’ve seen new business models and disruption in the industry. “With this once-in-a-lifetime generation, disruption comes from the resettling of methods for how parts are designed and produced. These changes allow for the business support required for the organization to try new things and ultimately change,” he offers.
3D printing is making moves to extend beyond prototyping in the automotive industry, offering its services for parts replacement and production. This leads to many benefits including lower cost production and fast design capabilities for manufacturers involved in various parts of the automotive industry.
Jun2019, Industrial Print Magazine