In recent months, major automotive companies have announced new moves in 3D printing as the technology gathers pace in their sector. Jessica Twentyman reports.
The global automotive industry was one of the earliest sectors to see the potential of 3D printing. Today, it’s where some of the most mature applications of the technology can be found.
Take, for example, General Motors, the maker of automobiles under the Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, and GMC brands. The company claims to have owned some of the first 3D printers, and now has some of the auto industry’s most comprehensive 3D printing capabilities. GM operates more than 50 rapid prototyping machines, which have produced more than 250,000 parts over the last decade.
But 3D printing in 2018 is about more than just prototyping. Increasingly, it’s about using additive manufacturing – a term that describes the way way 3D printers create an object in layers of material – in order to manufacture parts that are ready for use. That’s becoming increasingly attractive in the auto industry as 3D printers emerge that are capable of printing in metals and alloys, alongside older models that work with plastic resins.
New materials open the doors to the prospect of customising vehicles according to requests from individual customers – aka mass personalisation. It also means that auto manufacturers can make vehicles lighter, and thus more fuel-efficient.
But above all, it means they can potentially make vehicle production faster and less costly. Right now, 3D printing is typically used for low-volume production, largely due to limitations in cost and speed, but that could change as the technology advances.
Here are five examples of major automotive companies that have recently announced new moves in additive manufacturing.
Earlier this month, General Motors announced it is working with Bay Area design software company Autodesk to combine generative design software with 3D printing in order to produce lighter vehicle parts, through mass reduction and parts consolidation.
The partners showcased a seat bracket they have created that is 40 percent lighter and 20 percent stronger than the original part it replaces, and which consolidates eight different components into a single 3D-printed part.
Generative design uses cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI) to explore different design options for a product, generating hundreds of high-performance design options based on factors such as weight, strength, material choice, and fabrication method.
“When we pair the design technology with manufacturing advancements such as 3D printing, our approach to vehicle development is simply transformed,” said Ken Kelzer, GM vice president of global vehicle components and subsystems.
All three companies that make up the BMW Group already use 3D printed parts to some extent, according to the company. Rolls-Royce has been using them since 2012, Mini is now offering customised, 3D-printed panels and accessories to customers, while BMW uses 3D-printed parts in the new i8 Roadster.
Now, the German auto giant plans to take things further. In April, it unveiled plans to invest €10 million in building a new additive manufacturing campus in Oberschleissheim, north of Munich.
Said Jens Ertel, head of the BMW Group’s Additive Manufacturing Centre and the future campus director: “The team there will evaluate new and existing technologies in both plastics and metals printing, and develop them to series maturity. Our goal is to provide the optimum technology and process chain, be it for individual components, small production runs or even large-scale manufacturing.”
The Ford Motor Company is pushing the envelope on the kinds of materials it might use in 3D printing. In recent months, it has invested in two machines from 3D printing specialist Impossible Objects, a company that specialises in enabling companies to use a very wide range of composite and advanced materials, including carbon fibre, Kevlar, and fibreglass, along with high-performance polymers, in its 3D printers.
Ford has also led a $65 million investment round in Desktop Metal, a specialist in 3D printers that print in – you guessed it – metals. And last year, it revealed it was exploring production of car parts of much larger sizes using 3D printers from Stratasys.
At Porsche Classic, the division of Porsche dedicated to vintage vehicles, executives know how much collectors hate to request a spare part and hear that it’s no longer available. So now, the company produces rare parts using 3D printing, it announced in February.
That work began with a release lever for the clutch of a Porsche 959, but Porsche Classic is now manufacturing eight other parts using 3D printing, out of both steel/alloy and plastics. It’s also testing whether 3D printing might be suitable for the production of a further 20 components. A case of tradition meeting innovation, it seems.
Chinese company Polymaker and Italian electric vehicle manufacturer X Electrical Vehicle (XEV) are hoping to shake up the auto world with the launch of the world’s first 3D-printed car, scheduled to go into production in 2019 at the cost of just $7,500.
Around the same size as a Smart car, the LSEV is almost entirely made by 3D printers, with only the chassis, windscreen, and tyres made using conventional manufacturing methods. The companies claim that the car has just 57 plastic parts, compared to 2,000 in a conventional vehicle, which could help reduce the environmental impact of production.
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The shift off the desktop and out of the college art lab and into full-scale industrial applications now seems certain for 3D printing. With recent moves of the technology into other costly, labour-intensive fields – such as house building – 3D printing could help meet a range of complex challenges, from minimising the use of plastics and protecting the environment to making affordable housing available to more and more people.
But it is also a creative tool; by bringing together manufacturing and engineering with computer-aided design, product designers, architects, and engineers can begin to create objects and environments that would be impossible to make in any other way.
And as Porsche has discovered, 3D printing can also breathe new life into old products by creating replacement parts on demand.