November 7, 2018

Additive Manufacturing in the Automotive Industry

Additive Manufacturing (AM), also referred as 3D printing is the process of building 3D objects by adding layers of material on top of each other. The process uses 3D modeling software to send information to the printing machine, which is fed with the layering material of choice. These materials can be plastic, metal, concrete and titanium, among others. The process can be considered the opposite of traditional manufacturing where in the building process of an automobile for example, the different parts are created by subtracting material from a complete block of certain material. As technology advances in additive manufacturing, more is becoming possible, especially within the automotive sphere.

The materials used for cars nowadays are very different to what was being used just a couple of decades ago. The new steel used in the automotive industry along with other composite materials has helped reduce the weight of vehicles and improve their strength. Although this doesn’t seem to be revolutionary, it certainly tells us a lot about how the automotive industry is quite active in innovation. Thanks to the advances on technology and additive manufacturing processes, 3D printing is gaining prominence in the industry by enabling lighter and stronger vehicles, new design possibilities, shorter lead times, and reduced costs. Ultimately, 3D printing vehicles does not mean that the entire vehicle is printed, but the process is involved in the tooling for production and the manufacturing on end-use parts.

Advantages of using additive manufacturing in the production process

An article from Deloitte argues that there are two main areas where additive manufacturing can have a major impact on competitive advantage between automakers, and that can potentially can be a game changer:

  • As a source of product innovation: AM takes away design restrictions that constrain traditional ways of producing parts. This is is not just aesthetic but also functional, as it can enable combination of different materials in a single piece, with more or less flexibility and conductivity.
  • As a driver of supply chain transformation: Because additive manufacturing reduces the lead time, the market becomes more responsive. Furthermore, since additive manufacturing only uses the material it needs to produce the part, it can dramatically reduce the scrap and save substantial amounts of money in material. The ratio of material used in traditional manufacturing is around 20 to 1, this means that manufacturers need to buy 20 times the final usable piece. AM can also lower handling costs, while on-demand and on-location production can lower inventory costs. All this reduces complexity in supply chains and brings the manufacturing closer to the customer.

These two concepts can together foster a disruptive change in the industry and have the power to change business models of automotive companies.


3D printed car from Local Motors: Rally Fighter

How is Additive Manufacturing used today?

As mentioned before, AM facilitates the production of prototypes without the necessity of creating tools for it, and its benefits are reflected in accelerating design cycles and cost reduction. Nowadays, high volume OEMs alongside suppliers have been using additive manufacturing mostly to reduce costs and enhance operations

  • Product design: When developing new products, companies usually have to go through several models before selecting the final design. AM can help create many of these variations with little or no extra cost.
  • More quality: Being able to develop prototypes with enough time before the final production, automakers can test for quality way before the production starts.
  • Custom tools design: Tools are a fundamental element of the production in the automotive industry. With AM, it is possible to design hand made tools used in the assembly that can also have a better ergonomic design.
  • Reducing costs: For some components, customised tools need to be made for certain designs which is time consuming and expensive. AM takes away this dependency of OEMs. Deloitte mentions as an example that creating a prototype for an engine manifold costs around $500,000. With the use of AM, Ford managed to develop multiple iterations of the piece in only four days, only costing $3,000.

Some players in the market innovating in consumer oriented 3D printing

  • Local Motors: Local Motors is an American car manufacturer who focus on focused on low-volume manufacturing of open-source motor vehicle designs using multiple microfactories. The company has three models and an autonomous electric-powered shuttle named Olli. They employ through digitalisation, an open innovation approach, where they co-create with the community and involve the crowd in the design process.
  • Honda: In collaboration with the Japanese tech and design company Kabuku, they developed the vehicle’s customized body. The single-seater electric car is built with a body almost entirely made up of 3D-printed panels. While the car was specifically designed for transporting specific products, 3D printing could be used to create a variety of bodies to suit different needs. While the tiny car is just a prototype, the Japanese automaker stated that it could be an ideal opportunity for mass production.
  • Daihatsu Motor Company: the company will offer customers customized designs for car exteriors. The company offers customers customized design elements for car exteriors. Stratasys FDM 3D printing technology was used to “build” these three-dimensional patterns, called Effect Skins, for the front and rear bumpers of Daihatsu’s Copen 2-door convertible. “Using Stratasys 3D Printing technology to customize and supply parts to customers and to allow self-expression within a single car is, I believe, a first,” said Osamu Fujishita, General Manager, Corporate Planning Department, Brand DNA Office, Daihatsu Motor Co., Ltd.
SCOUT search engine

Take a look at the results in SCOUT. You can discover the players distributed geographically among many other options to find all about additive manufacturing and the car industry.

Challenges in the future

Additive manufacturing will still remain a challenge for the near future in terms of mass-production. Experts thing that AM will still remain mostly valuable for lower-volume production, which comprise higher-end vehicles or military vehicles. It can also be used for remanufacturing parts for vehicles older that 15 or 20 years for which OEMs don’t produce spare parts anymore.

Automotive companies are still using AM by incorporating it to existing capacities. However, there is not significant innovation in products or supply chain applications. Automotive companies should look into exploring other paths to create sustainable value. With ever decreasing life cycle for new vehicle models, automakers need to adapt to the new rules of the market, and that’s where AM can provide solutions through enabling a reduction in design-to-final production and the production of complex parts that can perform at high standards.  Leaders of automotive companies should then consider the potential of AM technologies to foster innovation in their business and develop competitive advantage in the market.

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