The automotive industry is one of the biggest users of additive manufacturing (AM), aka 3D printing. The Wohlers Report 2018 estimates that the automotive sector accounts for up to 16% of the entire AM market. The technology is popular with automotive OEMs and their suppliers because it accelerates processes and enables breakthrough design innovations. Tooling is not needed, thus reducing lead times, and 3D printing allows the fabrication of parts that would be impossible or unfeasible using conventional techniques. This enables parts consolidation and optimization of weight-to strength ratios, advancing lightweighting goals.
Additive manufacturing is extensively used in design and development, as it allows designers and engineers to quickly manufacture high-quality parts and models to test and validate designs and reduce time to market. Models can be produced quickly and easily offering near instant access to testing and feedback.
Prototyping and preproduction is the biggest current user of 3D printing within the automotive industry. 3D printing of both plastics and metals is increasingly used to produce parts for prototype vehicles and test builds. The parts can be manufactured without expensive tooling, and the materials offer characteristics closely resembling production materials, making them a valid choice for test builds.
Additive manufacturing is also having a big impact on the supply chain. The automotive industry has always been at the cutting edge of supply-chain management, with just-in-time and other concepts being key to its competitiveness. 3D printing is the newest tool in that toolbox.
Automotive production volumes are traditionally too high for 3D printing to make sense. This could change as the technologies and materials develop and costs come down, but even today it is having an impact on manufacturing in the following areas:
- Low-volume, complex parts, where weight-saving advantages or part consolidation can be leveraged. A famous example is Bugatti’s 3D-printed brake caliper.
- Exhausts and emissions—complex bellows and ducts are often manufactured via 3D printing.
- Fluid handling—3D printing enables complex shapes with internal channels without requiring traditional joints.
- Conformal cooling channels for tooling—3D-printed inserts for injection mold tooling enable the manufacture of conformal cooling channels, which are near impossible using conventional techniques. These tools result in more-consistent parts and fewer defects.
- Jigs and fixtures—many steps during the manufacture of an automobile require jigs and fixtures for assembly or verification, and many of them are being made via additive manufacturing.
Personalization is another area where 3D printing is having an impact on the automotive industry. To satisfy customer demand, many brands are offering special and exclusive vehicle series. The low volumes and high price points involved make 3D printing a great fit for many of the parts on these vehicles. Another recent example is BMW’s Mini Yours, which allows car buyers to personalize and print four different parts on their car.
Regulations in many countries require OEMs to keep spare parts available for a certain length of time. Volkswagen is already looking at implementing programs such as “reproduction on demand” and Daimler Trucks has created a digital warehouse for spare parts. The advantages of AM for reducing inventory, allowing localized production of spare parts and reducing costs throughout the automotive supply chain are very compelling.
Automotive has embraced innovation for decades, and the competitive nature of the industry makes new technologies and changing trends an essential part of its business. As OEMs increase their use of additive manufacturing, they will look to the supply chains to follow or even lead innovation in this area. Mass market industry users of 3D printing, such as the automotive sector, are essential to ensuring widespread adoption of the technology and in bringing down the price of machines and materials. They will also drive innovation from within and without. Additive manufacturing and automotive are already linked and will continue to grow together.
Image courtesy Vege/Adobe Stock.
About the author
James Murphy is the co-founder and Vice General Manager of HLH Prototypes Co. Ltd., one of China’s leading providers of rapid prototyping and low-volume injection molding services. Originally from the UK, Murphy has lived and worked in China for more than 12 years. He is passionate about hardware and enabling companies large and small to bring world-changing innovations to market faster.