Posted by Brenna Sniderman
You know how it goes at auto shows: concept cars, cool new designs. Cars are brought into a vast convention space filled with auto lovers and journalists eager to get a glimpse of up-and-coming new technologies that will herald the next evolution in automobiles. But at 2015 Detroit auto show, Phoenix-based Local Motors showed up without a car…and instead “printed” one: the Strati, the world’s first 3D-printed car.i
True, mainstream automakers are not 3d printing entire cars at this point, or even many end-use parts. But it’s getting there, and I would argue that additive manufacturing currently plays a pretty crucial role in most auto manufacturers’ processes already, even if 3d printed parts themselves aren’t yet showing up in the finished products. Indeed, automotive companies are already voracious users of additive manufacturing (AM) technologies: Automotive constitutes one of the largest areas of AM system sales, narrowly trailing industrial parts and consumer products.ii
And automotive manufacturers are using AM in all sorts of interesting and innovative ways, beyond simply rapid prototyping – though that’s a pretty prevalent application. AM is used to test components and to better understand what works about them and what doesn’t. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. use AM in this way, the former in producing oil pans that it then drives in cars for thousands of miles to test outcomes, and the latter in fabricating clear versions of components such as axle housings to be able to observe their inner workings and distribution of lubrication in simulations of real-life driving scenarios. iii,iv Likewise, AM is used to create made-to-fit tools for automotive employees – with the goal of customizing their tools to their own specific geometries and contributing to improved worker safety and increased productivity.v One can even imagine a time when AM can be used to produce customized parts for drivers: perhaps a steering wheel built to fit your hands and the way you grip, or a headrest that cradles the exact shape of your head. Applications can also be explored in using AM to print parts for out-of-production and vintage cars, leading to a potential market for the design files themselves, rather than just the physical parts.vi Indeed, Deloitte has examined these opportunities in “3D opportunity for the automotive industry: Additive manufacturing hits the road.”
To be sure, additive manufacturing is not a new technology – far from it. In fact, AM got its start in the 1980s, about three decades ago. But many recent developments in both materials and printing technologies may be paving the road – excuse the pun – for wider adoption of additive manufacturing in the automotive sector.
Research has been steadily progressing to expand the portfolio of available materials, including those that can be used specifically for additively manufacturing electronic components, to play a role in the production of high-strength plastic components, and to increase tensile strength, electrical conductivity, hardness, and impact strength without a corresponding increase in weight – all crucial features for the automotive industry. Research is also underway to develop more cost-effective options for already-existing materials, such as titanium.vii
Printing advancements such as high speed fab grade printing, hybrid processes, new developments in multi-material printing, and larger printing beds can also make AM an easier proposition for automotive. They can do so by making it easier to produce end parts combining the best benefits of AM and conventional manufacturing (as with hybrid printing), fabricate reinforced, stronger end parts comprised of composite materials (as in the case of new advancements in multi-material printing), and offering a build envelope large enough to accommodate the production of bigger parts such as body panels and doors (as with larger printer beds).
As AM continues to gain momentum, it’s hard to imagine automotive manufacturers hitting the brakes anytime soon. In fact, usage will likely continue to grow rapidly, as the range of materials, printer capabilities – and imagination – continue to evolve.
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Suggested further reading:
3D Opportunity Primer
3D opportunity: Additive manufacturing paths to performance, innovation, and growth
3D opportunity for production: Additive manufacturing makes its (business) case
3D opportunity for quality assurance and parts qualification