Many industries, including everything from aerospace to medical device manufacturing, are now utilizing 3D printing. The industry that has benefited the most in recent years from this form of additive manufacturing is the automotive sector. It has been used in a variety of ways from the creation of bespoke and spare parts, prototype components and often the fully completed components used in road-ready cars.
In the following post, we want to showcase how big an impact 3D printing is having on automotive manufacturing, by showing how it has been involved in changes within the sector.
3D Printing Vehicles
Perhaps the most striking and direct impact 3D printing has had on the automotive sector is where it has been used in the manufacturing of a whole car, apart from the engine, brakes, steering system and tires.
Normally 3D printing is used to produce specific parts and components. Has that stopped Local Motors, based in Arizona, from pushing the technology to its limit? The company launched Strati in 2014, the first electric car that had a frame that was created using 3D printing. Using a massive 3D printer designed and created by Cincinnati Incorporated that Oak Ridge National Laboratory operated on behalf of Local Motors, it took less than 24 hours to complete the work.
While it’s fair to say there have not been many manufacturers who have 3D printed a complete car body, the speed at which the Local Motors vehicle was manufactured gave many in the industry a lot to think about.
Another way 3D printing is having an impact on the automotive industry is by reducing its impact on the environment. Take the company Divergent Technologies who are trying to completely revolutionize the production cycle involved in making cars. Their goal is to use locally based micro-factories, rather than the huge production centers car manufacturers normally use, which means they can not only decrease how much it costs to make cars but also the toll it has on the environment.
3D Printed Tools
Another hugely important way that 3D printing is being used in the automotive industry is to build manufacturing tools and aids such as fixtures and jigs. It can cost a lot of money and take a lot of time to make manufacturing tools in a more traditional way. A further complication is the limitations with regards to geometry. Overall the result is the manufacturing processes are far less efficient than many companies would prefer and places unworkable constraints on the shape and sizing of parts in their end-use form.
When 3D printing is used to make automotive manufacturing tools, they are more ergonomically shaped and lighter. This makes them not only safer but also easier to use. Which, in turn, saves precious money and time.
Casting Cores and Injection Molds
3D Printing can be used to make the casting cored for metallic parts and injection molds for parts made of plastic in car manufacturing. This allows you to have greater freedom with regards to the design compared to using just traditional materials and manufacturing techniques.
In addition, topographical optimization is starting to become the industry standard, which entails the part’s geometry is fully optimized to create the most effective and efficient shape without using more than the necessary amount of materials. These tend to have a more organic structure, making them harder to reproduce without the use of 3D printing at some point.
Many of the biggest companies in the industry, such as Ford, Volvo, GM and many more utilize 3D printing when producing production aids to reduce lead times, create better designs and most importantly, save money.
Notably, BMW has even utilized 3D printing to devise an orthotic aid that alleviates the stress plant workers normally suffer from on their thumbs while working on assembly tasks.
Quicker Part Prototyping
There have been more and more machines designed and produced to allow companies to use 3D printers for full-on production. However, many companies still consider 3D printing to be primarily prototyping tech. This is because it does not need much material, is quick and allows designers to create complicated geometries.
To get the full benefit of this side of 3D printing, there are a few car manufacturers who use it to prototype their new parts and components. Often, they will 3D print several different iterations so they can decide which is best.
The automotive industry is one of the earliest to get involved in using 3D printing for prototyping, as it was as early as the 90s when BMW and Ford started using forms of additive manufacturing to work on concepts during the pre-manufacturing phase of production.
Replacement part printing
By far the most obvious and important use 3D printing has in all industries is producing replacement components for even the most intricate and complicated systems very quickly. Whether it is for fixing them or upgrading them.
It enables manufacturers to save space and money as the parts can be made to order and on-demand instead of needing storage space.
Easier Personalization and Customization of Cars
Customization in the automotive industry has become incredibly important over the last couple of decades. A large percentage of car owners are now interested in customizing their cars and making them more personalized. 3D printing can be used to make this easier. There is, in theory, the prospect that car owners could get all their customizations completed by the manufacturers, rather than having to look to third parties or local mechanics.
BMW, again, are one of the manufacturers leading the industry in this regard by using laser lettering alongside 3D printing to produce highly individual and personalized products and accessories for one of their MINI series of vehicles. The service which is known as MINI Your Customized has already gained popularity among existing BMW customers.
Right now, customers can benefit from customizable elements such as:
- LED door projectors
- LED door sills
- Passenger-side interior trims
- Side scuttles
- Indicator inlays
Customers can choose, design and order these new parts using an online platform.
Other high-end car manufacturers like Rolls Royce are considering the use of this kind of technology to offer more fully personalized and customized vehicles for the wealthiest of their clientele. The idea, which follows on nicely from the section we covered about replacement parts, is to manufacture large body parts and spare parts with 3D printing.