In 2011, 3D printing achieved a 29.4% growth in a year, far ahead of the 26.4% collective historical growth of the industry at that time. With endless manufacturing possibilities unlocked by 3D solutions, the automotive industry who is known to carry out operations single-handly via major plants across the world- is bound to shift towards a different method.
Typically, the auto industry uses 3D printing and additive manufacturing for 1) prototyping and modeling, and 2) design verification and assessment. There has been a rise in using 3D scanners to reverse-engineer auto components of all kinds and to provide the aftermarket with custom parts.
Case studies include the left-hand/right-hand side conversion of vehicles for the European market, rerouting exhaust pipes, etc… In addition, with compatible scan-to-CAD-to-print software, individuals and SMEs alike can create cheaper alternatives to the acquisition of custom and reverse-engineered car parts. Measuring and analyzing with the help of 3D scanners has significantly altered re-engineering. 3D scanning has over time unlocked precise measurement methods with objects and parts form the real world.
Although the technological means are at hand the industry is still not ready to review and approve the actual manufacturing of critical auto parts through non-regulated craftsmanship. These parts are deemed critical because of the environment, stress, fatigue, and wear they will experience during their service life. Materials and tolerance are a dominating factor as well as components where mechanical, thermal, strength, and longevity properties need to be carefully assessed before anything hits the market.
What we might see in the future is a certification process through which manufacturing companies could go to to be a part of a bigger, intersectoral mass-production model. This type of model would eventually lead to reductions in development and production rates. And while we are still a long time away from a standard homemade 3D-printed car, 3D printing pioneer Local Motors introduced in 2014 the first vehicle produced entirely using this technology. They would later be known for developing Olli, the AI-driven minibus, based upon the same premise.
Who is using 3D Printing in the Automotive Industry?
- Daimler has been using 3D printing technologies for the last 25 years
- BMW Mini explored car customization by means of the same technology
- Mercedes-Benz announced 3D-printed parts for its classic models in 2018
- Ford, for its own part, as an early investor in 3D printing technology, opened the Advanced Manufacturing Center, boasting over twenty printers, augmented reality and cobots
With little or no CAD files on hand, measuring and re-engineering parts for the automotive industry becomes a challenge because traditional methods cannot cope with new car models being launched each year. 3D scanning offers highly detailed data for third-party manufacturers who use 3D printing, providing customers with a wide range of parts and accessories made available as soon as a new car model is out.
The same goes for vehicle conversion and reconditioning, and part replacement for vintage cars. So to what extent is AM used in production and which parts get to the consumer? For the moment, the focus is on brackets and housings. But the research and development efforts that go into these ventures will probably prove worthy in the next decades.
Already part of this disruptive tech revolution, 3D printing companies have their challenges: they are pushed by the automakers and the market to develop devices and methods to print larger components and larger numbers of components rapidly. But what hinders the effectiveness of AM in mass-production environments? Metallic 3D printing. While there are ways to print metal the issue resides in the alloys produced and/or the time it takes to print larger parts.
While AM has the potential to be found throughout the value chain of new vehicles, it is currently mainly found in the rapid prototyping and design assessment stages.
On the one hand, with the help of 3D scanners and compatible scan-to-CAD-to-print software, 3D printing is making its way into the operations, service, quality management, and traceability steps of the chain, to name a few. Its exponential growth and democratization allow for cheaper tools, devices, and systems, which in the end will give rise to domestic-scale production of components ranging from the simple bracket to the vehicle frame. In that regard, 3D scanning and printing can affect the economic and environmental dimensions of society, from the employment and mobility perspectives.