Additive manufacturing is gaining significant ground in the automotive industry, due to the potential it offers to create new designs through prototyping.
Thanks to the technological breakthroughs this method is enabling, end-use parts are now beginning to be produced despite companies not looking for radical alterations to their supply and production chains.
Additive manufacturing allows them to make design iterations that increase the quality of the final product by making cost-effective and extremely realistic prototypes. It also allows them to test the full functionality of the part or create specific tooling for safer, cleaner and lighter products with shorter lead times and lower costs.
Car manufacturers can differentiate themselves from the competition in basically two ways:
- Product innovation: Additive manufacturing allows manufacturing with far fewer constraints. This gives access to manufacturing products with customised features and enhanced functionalities (e.g. integrated electrical wiring through hollow structures), weight reduction (lattice structures) and complex geometries that traditional manufacturing methods cannot replicate.
- Transforming the supply chain: By streamlining the prototyping process and increasing the quality of final products, additive manufacturing reduces production time, giving it improved responsiveness to the market. In addition, by using only the right material for the creation of parts, it contributes to the drastic reduction of waste and raw materials. As a result, handling and inventory costs are reduced while production adapts to demand.
End-use parts – a growing segment
As we have just seen, additive manufacturing was initially introduced because it is a technology that allows for design iterations, cost-effective prototyping and the creation of specific tooling parts, among other functionalities.
However, the production of end-use parts is starting to become one of the most interesting functionalities of additive manufacturing. In fact, if we take a report published in 2019 by SmarTech Publishing (additive manufacturing market outlook report), we will learn that forecasts announce $9 billion in revenue from end-use part production compared to $1.39 billion in 2019.
What does this tell us about additive manufacturing in this sector?
An increasing number of OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) are turning to 3D printing to develop end-use parts in addition to rapid prototypes.
The reason for this change lies in a growing quest for innovation, in response to the competitiveness of the automotive market. Dramatically increasing the performance of a part by reducing its weight is one of the ways to respond to this need for innovation (and additive manufacturing does it). Reducing part weight also leads to reduced fuel consumption.
Thanks to industrial design software, additive manufacturing has tools for generative design, topological optimisation and lattice creation, all of which drastically reduce the final weight of parts (and improve their functionality). The challenges of manufacturing lightweight parts are easily solved through additive manufacturing thanks to features such as the consolidation of multiple parts into a single design. This means that the complexity of assembly processes would disappear in the case of needing to manufacture a large volume of parts, for example.
Additive manufacturing also allows for high levels of customisation, which is essential in an industry such as luxury cars. Some luxury car manufacturers are already using AM to offer specialised designs tailored to individual customer requirements. How does additive manufacturing differ from traditional manufacturing methods in this respect? For example, in lead times, which are highly competitive thanks to additive manufacturing. The cost of producing these parts is also a differentiating factor.
Additive manufacturing applications in the automotive sector
For the reasons mentioned above, the automotive industry is one of the sectors that is making the most of the advantages of additive manufacturing. We would therefore like to mention some of the main automotive companies that use AF:
Audi and the Stratasys solutions: a few years ago, the German multinational company set out to accelerate automotive design and therefore opted to use Stratasys solutions. They later added an AF printer to their production line, which allowed them to extend the production of models such as wheel covers, grilles, door handles or even tail light cabochons, which are usually made of transparent plastic. With additive manufacturing, they accelerated the design and creation of final parts, responding to customer demand.
BMW, 25 years of additive manufacturing: the German company was one of the first to integrate additive manufacturing and in 2020 opened its own additive manufacturing centre. In fact, its i8 Roadster model integrates very light parts (much lighter than usual), along with the reduced weight and increased strength of some of its parts.
Bugatti brakes: Bugatti, a subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group, is a manufacturer of luxury and racing cars. At the beginning of 2018, the company announced that it had started to develop some parts with additive manufacturing. Specifically, it turned to titanium AF to make brake calipers lighter.
Ferrari and metal additive manufacturing: The Italian manufacturer used metal additive manufacturing to design the pistons for one of its engines. Using an EOS machine and titanium powder, additive manufacturing allowed it to create a much more complex, stronger and lighter part, also using topological optimisation. The carmaker also designed brake pedals and printed them via FA with a hollow structure.
Ford develops 3D printed projects: a standout is the aluminium air intake manifold, one of the largest 3D printed metal parts for the car.
General Motors creates seat bracket: In collaboration with Autodesk, the manufacturer General Motors has developed a 3D printed seat bracket made of stainless steel for its future electric cars.
Lamborghini personalises its Sian Roadster: Lamborghini offers every buyer of the Sian Roadster a total choice of interior; it also offers a choice of paintwork. The newly designed air vents were printed in FA and allow customers to customise with options such as integrating their initials into the design.
McLaren and its latest model 720S: The British company McLaren has also integrated additive manufacturing into the production process of its 720S model.
Mercedes develops metal spare parts: After Mercedes successfully produced truck parts made of plastic, the company now also produces truck parts made of metal.
Michelin manufactures 3D tyres: French tyre manufacturer Michelin unveiled its first FA prototype in 2019. Called Uptis (puncture-proof tyre system), these tyres are designed to be airless, thus reducing the risk of punctures and other failures on the road.
MINI’s focus on personalisation: MINI customers have the opportunity to customise their vehicle by designing the side stripe on the passenger seat side and the side inserts themselves.
Porsche optimises its sports car pistons: Porsche has been using additive manufacturing technology since the early 1990s. Recently, the automotive giant created engine pistons with FA for the first time. The components manufactured with this technology were designed for the high-performance engine of the Porsche 911 GT2.
SEAT opens an additive manufacturing centre: SEAT’s additive manufacturing centre houses several additive manufacturing solutions. These include an HP Multi Jet Fusion, an SLS machine, 6 FDM 3D printers and a PolyJet solution.
What does the future hold for the sector?
In order to achieve growth and adapt to needs, automotive manufacturers will have to explore new business models. They should open their minds, and while traditional manufacturing techniques are deeply entrenched in the industry and will continue to hold a dominant position in the automotive industry, additive manufacturing is gaining ground at a rapid pace. While this manufacturing technique will not remain the only manufacturing technique in the future, it will nonetheless play a major role in shaping the global automotive landscape.
FA will allow you to keep development cycles short and achieve lower costs. Even with the advent of the electric automotive sector, which has a great interest in these manufacturing techniques as they see it as a solution to speed up the production of much lighter parts.