Since the early days of additive manufacturing, there has been interest in the technology from the automotive industry. American automaker Ford actually bought the third 3D printer ever made in 1986, marking the beginning of a fruitful and productive relationship between the 3D printing and automotive segments.
Since Ford’s early adoption of 3D printing, the technology has been adopted by many automotive manufacturers in some capacity. Big car companies have experimented with the technology to see its impact on product development and supply chains, while smaller automotive startups, such as Divergent and Local Motors, have found 3D printing to be an essential part of their production.
Recently, the automotive industry has begun to experience a shift from predominantly prototyping applications for additive manufacturing into end-use production. The technology’s flexible nature and broad design freedom have meant that car manufacturers can design new and cutting edge vehicle components, revolutionize their production workflows and offer increasingly customized solutions to customers.
Advantages of 3D printing in the automotive industry
Additive manufacturing is a broad term for a series of processes that build parts in an additive rather than subtractive fashion. This essentially means that parts are built up layer by layer instead of having material removed from a block. This approach to manufacturing, as well as the many platforms associated with the technology (including stereolithography, fused deposition modeling, selective laser sintering and more), offer a range of unique benefits that more traditional manufacturing processes do not.
- Design freedom
Because parts are built up layer by layer in 3D printing, the process opens up unprecedented opportunities for design freedom, which in turn creates opportunities for part optimization and lightweighting. In the automotive sector, the ability to reduce the weight of a component (and the overall weight of the vehicle) is essential when trying to improve fuel efficiency. 3D printing offers the ability to redesign and create automotive parts that integrate complex internal geometries, cutting down on weight and material usage without sacrificing quality.
- Part Consolidation
Beyond lightweighting, additive manufacturing can also enable manufacturers to redesign and consolidate parts—transforming multi-component assemblies into a single part. This ability can contribute to increasingly lightweight structures and can even improve the performance of a given part. In the automotive sector, consolidating parts can help to streamline production and assembly processes.
When one thinks of automotive production, one often thinks of mass manufacturing: sophisticated production lines turning out millions of the same parts before assembling them into cars. With the proliferation of 3D printing, however, the automotive industry is now seeing new degrees of customizability for cars at a viable cost. For low-volume or specialty vehicles especially, it is now possible to integrate custom interior features into cars at a reasonable cost. Auto brand MINI, for example, lets customers choose from a range of personalized 3D printed interior parts.
- Rapid turnaround times
There are a number of ways in which 3D printing can speed up automotive production. For one, in the prototyping stage, 3D printing can be used to rapidly produce functional parts for testing, enabling automotive designers and engineers to quickly determine if a component’s design is viable. In the production stage, 3D printing is used by automotive manufacturers for rapid tooling, leading to lower costs.
Prototyping and Pre-production Applications for 3D Printing in Automotive industry
- Design Demonstrations
In the design process for new cars, it is helpful and often necessary to produce a physical prototype to accurately demonstrate the concept behind the car. 3D printing technologies, and especially multi-colour and multi-material processes, can enable the rapid production of one-off prototypes or small-scale models that depict the car’s aesthetic and structure. From headlights to interior components, 3D printing is increasingly being used by automotive companies for realistic design demonstrations.
- Functional Prototypes
Certain 3D printing processes, including industrial FDM and metal AM are also used to produce functional prototypes in the automotive design and development phase. 3D printed parts can be produced rapidly, tested and tweaked until the optimal design is achieved.
Arguably one of the biggest impacts that 3D printing has had in the automotive industry is in the production of tools, jigs and fixtures in the pre-production phase. AM allows car manufacturers to produce low cost tools on the fly, using them for small or medium production batches or to validate tooling for mass production.
Production Applications for 3D Printing in Automotive industry
- Custom parts
As mentioned above, one of the biggest advantages of 3D printing in the automotive sector is customization. Unlike injection molding, where costs are lowered the more parts are produced, the cost of 3D printing is not dependent on how many parts are manufactured, making it suitable for printing one-off, personalized components. Similarly, thanks to digital design and customization software, it is possible to rapidly iterate personalized interior or decorative features for luxury or special edition vehicles.
- Replacement parts
Another significant production application for 3D printing in the automotive sphere is in the creation of spare or replacement parts for rare or vintage vehicles. If a part has become obsolete, 3D printing makes it possible for automotive specialists to reverse engineer components and produce them on the fly. Last year, for instance, Siemens Industrial Turbomachinery Ltd. utilized 3D scanning and printing to restore a 100-year-old car up to working condition.
- Under-the-hood components
Though still a niche area of automotive 3D printing, the opportunities for printing under-the-hood components are increasing as the technology continues to advance. At this time, there is some experimentation going on which demonstrates AM’s viability for such applications. For example, Ford recently installed an intake manifold inside the rally ride “Hoonitruck ” (the largest metal 3D printed part installed in a car to date), while Divergent Technologies also utilizes metal 3D printing to produce the chassis of its Blade supercar.
RapidDirect 3D Printing Services
At RapidDirect, we offer a range of 3D printing services, including fused deposition modeling (FDM), PolyJet 3D printing and selective laser sintering which are capable of fulfilling a number of automotive applications. Thanks to a broad range of materials, our cutting edge 3D printing technologies can be used for producing functional prototypes, design demonstrations, customized parts and more.
Our team of experts works closely with clients to ensure that parts are not only 3D printed and delivered on time but are also optimized for additive production. Finally, our range of professional finishing services provide 3D printed products and parts with a high quality finish.