The Value of Additive Manufacturing in
the Automotive Industry

For the past decade, additive manufacturing (also known as industrial 3D printing) has played an increasingly important role in the automotive industry. It was initially used to create automotive prototypes to check their form and fit. As 3D printing technology and materials have evolved and diversified, 3D printing has moved from an optional technology limited to producing simple prototypes to an integral part of the manufacturing process, from initial conceptualization to production of final parts.

 

The automotive industry has been transformed by the opportunities provided by additive manufacturing. Now commonly used in design studios, factory assembly lines and customization, 3D printers are aiding in design and development, accelerating the assembly process, creating complex parts, enhancing measurement and testing, and providing customization solutions across the range of the development process.

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The Czinger 21C hypercar showcases the future of additive manufacturing in the automotive industry.  With over 350 AM components used in the vehicle's structure, suspension, brake systems, drivetrain and beyond, each component  is computationally engineered and optimized for weight, efficiency and performance.

To start, it is important to clarify how additive manufacturing works. In this process, a part is built layer by layer from the ground up, eventually completing the form of the finished part. This has minimal material waste as only the materials needed to build the part are used. This is in contrast to subtractive manufacturing (such as CNC machining), where a part is formed by removing material from raw stock, or injection molding, where multiple parts are cast in a mold. Traditional manufacturing methods can be limited by the speed of manufacturing, setup costs, design limitations, and/or ability to complete on-the-fly design adjustments. In contrast, the process of building in layers gives a great deal of design freedom, as intricate shapes, hollow parts, and interlined parts can be built as easily as simple shapes, and parts can be produced within hours or days, rather than weeks.

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BMW has been 3D printing parts for it's vehicles since 2010. Here, parts are being manufactured for the BMW i8 roadster using HP Multi Jet Fusion technology.

Applications of Additive Manufacturing in the Automotive Industry

 

Typical applications of additive manufacturing (AM) in the automotive industry include:

 
Design and concept communication

3D printed scale models allow engineers to communicate and demonstrate design concepts for new vehicles or vehicle components. These models are also used for the aerodynamic testing of new models. For example, GM used 3D printing to build 75 percent of a C8 Corvette prototype, allowing the automaker to make changes on the fly to design parts and make sure they fit together properly. They also used 3D printing to train robots on the production line instead of having to wait for the final parts to be built.

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3D printed Chevrolet C8 Corvette Prototype

Rapid prototyping and design validation

In the ongoing race to be the first and best, auto manufacturers continually engage in research and development to create better products and get them to market faster than their competitors. AM makes this process quicker and more affordable, with its ability to quickly create working prototypes in just a few hours, instead of typical turnarounds of several days or more. This can help product designers test and iterate more frequently and cost-effectively, ultimately leading to better end products. Using AM is now one of the most common ways to validate a prototype, whether it’s a small quickly printed detail or a full-scale functional part for performance validation and testing.

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Skorpion Engineering uses a structural welding technique to produce large parts with HP Multi Jet Fusion technology.

Design optimization and weight reduction

Automotive manufacturers work to improve the design of components in order to minimize weight, reduce manufacturing steps, or improve the overall design. The additive manufacturing process allows weight-reducing strategies such as using lighter materials or eliminating non-structural material or integrating multiple parts into one. For example, engineers at GM and Autodesk used generative design to consolidate an 8-component seat bracket assembly into a single piece. This 3D printed seat bracket is 40% lighter and 20% stronger than the original part.

Seat bracket re-engineered by GM for weight reduction and streamlined manufacturing.

Jigs, fixtures and tooling

In the production stage, additive manufacturing is used to rapidly manufacture grips, jigs and fixtures, as well as make molds for parts. This allows manufacturers to streamline the assembly process and produce customized tools at a low cost. For example, Ford uses 3D printing for jigs and fixtures to streamline the assembly of their vehicles, and BMW has replaced aluminum fixtures with 3D printed thermoplastic fixtures.

Production parts

An increasing number of manufacturers are producing end-use parts with additive manufacturing. This manfuacturing process offers greater freedom of design and ability to innovate without sacrificing strength or structural integrity when compared to traditional manufacturing. An added benefit is that the same technology can be used for concept models, functional prototypes and end-use parts, providing a streamlined transition from initial concept through mass production.

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Bugati’s eight-piston monoblock brake caliper is the world’s first brake caliper to be produced by a 3D printer.

Customized parts

Customization is an increasingly popular trend in the automotive industry, mainly due to the advancements in 3D printing technology and materials. Additive manufacturing makes it easy and cost-effective to create unique items or low-volume production runs of custom parts, in a way not previously possible. Some manufacturers customize vehicles to suit a particular customer, others to improve the performance or appearance of specific vehicles. A fun example is Volkswagen, who used their VW Type 20 concept van to showcase some of their most cutting-edge technologies and ability for mass customization of vehicle components.

Replacement parts

With traditional manufacturing methods, it is usually more cost-effective to manufacture large quantities at one time than to produce parts as needed. This results in consuming storage space to stockpile parts, or throwing away extra or obsolete parts that were overproduced. 3D printing has the same low cost per part, whether they are produced individually or mass-produced. This allows on-demand manufacturing, where parts are produced as needed.

 

With the use of CAD, designs for all parts can be kept as a digital copy, making the need to keep inventory obsolete. Even parts that no longer exist can potentially be remade to requirement, or reverse engineered based on digital scans of existing parts.

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Porsche has dedicated a branch, called Porsche Classic, to keep their vintage lines alive. They use 3D printing to produce plastic and metal replacement parts as needed.

Benefits of Additive Manufacturing in the Automotive Industry

 

There are a variety of ways the automotive industry benefits from additive manufacturing. These include:

 

Reduced production time

Because there is minimal setup and no tooling required, additive manufacturing provides a much faster turnaround time for prototypes and short-run production than traditional manufacturing. Additional time is saved if multiple parts can be integrated into one design, which eliminates the time and cost of assembly. Because functional parts can be manufactured in days rather than weeks, the prototyping process can be completed efficiently and products taken to market faster and more affordably than previously possible.

 

Less wasted material

Generally, additive manufacturing produces far less wasted material than traditional manufacturing because the parts are built layer-by-layer, rather than removing unnecessary material from a solid piece or creating unique molds for each part design. The ability to produce parts on demand also reduces the need to dispose of unused product if it is unused or becomes obsolete.

 

Supply chain optimization

The ongoing supply chain issues are accelerating the trend of localized manufacturing. Automotive manufacturers are eliminating delays due to materials shortages and shipping delays by manufacturing parts on-site or outsourcing to local 3D printing service bureaus. This has the added benefit of supporting the local economy and saving shipping costs, which have up to 200+% over the past year alone.

 
Reduced energy consumption

Additive manufacturing is far less energy-intensive than traditional manufacturing processes. An additional benefit is lower fuel consumption and pollution due to minimized shipping of raw materials and final product, as parts are manufactured closer to home.

 

Reduced inventory

As additive manufacturing is used to create replacement parts and tooling, facilities require less inventory space to store the extra parts. This can reduce overhead and save space.

 

Cost savings

All of the above factors can result in cost benefits and reductions, especially over time and when compared to traditional manufacturing, yielding a positive return on investment.

 

Supporting Manufacturers with Industrial 3D printing

 

Tempus 3D is an additive manufacturing service bureau located in Western Canada that specializes in the additive manufacturing of industrial plastics for the Canadian market. We support our clients throughout the manufacturing process from initial conceptualization and prototyping through full manufacturing of end-use parts. With industry-leading HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology and industry expertise, the team at In-Gear has the tools and expertise to support your product development goals. Contact us today to learn more.