The Automotive Industry Embraces 3D Printing

The automotive industry is the biggest user of 3D printing technology for prototype parts today, but this is set to grow as the industry transitions from using 3D printing purely for prototypes, to rapid manufacturing using printing techniques. A recent report from analysts SmarTech revealed the value of 3D printing technologies and materials in the automotive sector will to grow to $1.1 billion by 2019. 3D printer equipment revenues in the automotive industry will reach $586 million, and printing materials will reach $376 million by the same date. Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways the automotive industry is using this technology, or may choose to in the future.

 

Prototype Parts

Prototyping is the most common use of 3D printing for automotive parts. Thermoplastic materials can be printed into shapes that make up the interior of the car, such as the dashboard itself, but right down to things like knobs and door handles. These prototypes can be used for visualising how the final design will look, but importantly, they can also be used to get end users’ feedback on things like ergonomics, often years before the vehicle is finished.

For manufacturers, 3D printing prototypes eliminates the need for special tooling or moulds for parts that are likely to change in the development process, with significant cost and development time benefits. It’s ideal for test parts, or those that will likely undergo a lot of changes during the development process.

Ford Motor Co., an early adopter and advocate of 3D printing, says that the technology directly improves vehicle quality by providing engineers more time and freedom to optimise and test parts. Ford uses selective laser sintering, fused deposition modelling and stereolithography techniques to print items as complex as cylinder heads, intake manifolds and air vents: for the most complicated engine part, the intake manifold, it used to take 4 months and $500,000 to make one prototype, whereas with 3D printing one can be produced in four days for $3000.

Figure 1: Ford engineers work on 3D printed engine parts

 

The company recently announced its 500,000th printed car part – a prototype engine cover for the 2015 Ford Mustang – but it has used these techniques across its product range. For example, brake rotors for the Ford Explorer were modified late in the development cycle to fix a brake noise that was discovered in durability testing. This issue could have delayed the initial launch of the product, but 3D printing saved the day.

Figure 2: The all-new 2015 Ford Mustang

 

Concept Only

Concept cars have also been a big user of 3D printing; 3D printing is the most economical way to produce one-off parts for designs like these. The one pictured below, from German company EDAG Engineering, uses a 3D-printed structure covered in lightweight fabric to minimise weight.

As well as for concept cars, the same economic factors are true for cars that will only see limited production. Complex, expensive machining of low volume engine parts, which may have been cost-prohibitive in the past may now be viable as the cost structure of manufacturing has been changed so drastically by the advent of 3D printing. Formula 1 and motorsport are specific applications that can take advantage of 3D printing’s benefits, since they require a lot of prototypes and their parts are obviously not mass-produced.

Figure 3: The “Light Cocoon” concept car from EDAG Engineering

 

3D Scanning

Hand-in-hand with 3D printing is 3D scanning, that is, using a 3D scanner to gather data about an existing object so that a copy of it can be printed. 3D scanning allows the reproduction of existing parts, and may be used for applications like keeping classic cars running for long after the supply of spare parts dries up.

Opel reportedly uses 3D scanners to dissect competing models of car, scanning torn-down vehicles which can be reverse-engineered into computer models of the vehicles for comparison with their own designs.

 

Future Developments

In the future, a number of different uses for automotive 3D printing seem likely. The customisation of cars today is limited to the super-rich, but with 3D printing on demand, it may become possible for each driver to have his or her exact preference of size and grip of steering wheel.

There are also several start-ups making cars from almost entirely 3D-printed parts. One of the most compelling is Local Motors, which printed its crowd sourced Strati car as a demo during the North American International Auto Show over several days. 3D printing all 2012 layers of the structure took 44 hours on a BAAM printer, then refined using a CNC machine, before all the mechanical and electrical components were added.  The company wants to set up micro-factories for producing its open sourced designs in different US locations, creating jobs and reducing freight and distribution costs for the finished vehicles.

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