The use of 3D printing in the automotive industry is not news. In fact, the Ford Motor company purchased one of the first 3D printers ever built more than 30 years ago.
Today, in 2017, the automotive industry is demanding the rapid production of parts in order to speed up the process from prototyping, through to testing, and on to production parts.
Start-ups such as Carbon 3D, as well as established multinationals such as HP, have received media coverage recently around the development of 3D printers that offer even faster build times, and a wider choice of materials, across a range of plastics, metals, and elastomers--polymers with elastic properties, such as rubber.
The challenge for 3D printing manufacturers, however, is to deliver the speed demanded from them. The needs of automotive manufacturers can require parts to be built with a variety of geometries, matching the mechanical properties advertised for respective materials and, in some cases, at process rates of up to 100 times faster than originally proposed.
Speed of production has clear benefits to automotive manufacturers, as it enables greater productivity, higher levels of quality at a lower cost, and the option of mass customisation.
The BMW Additive Manufacturing Centre team, for example, manages more than 25,000 orders for 3D printed prototypes and manufactures more than 100,000 components for multiple divisions with the BMW Group each year.
It also uses 3D printing to produce custom manufacturing equipment and specialised tooling for vehicle assembly lines, and has been using additive manufacturing to produce custom or short run components since 2010, when it printed a water pump that is still used in its DTM silhouette race cars.
Depending on the application being used, the Additive Manufacturing Centre tram is typically able to manufacture parts as varied as design samples, small plastic holders, metal chassis components, and prototypes for functional testing all within a matter of days.
Investing in the future
Many automotive manufacturers are now either investing in 3D printing technology in order to capitalise on the benefits it offers, or sourcing service providers with the capability and bandwidth to offer plastic and metal 3D printing services on demand, as and when required.
Technology-agnostic service providers such as Proto Labs, offer speed and scale of production via a range of digital manufacturing options to support the automotive industry as it moves forward.
Carmakers such as Peugeot SA (PSA) Group are investing in new 'scalable' production processes with the aim of reducing set-up costs around local automotive production plants, as well as speeding up the assembly process. Elsewhere, the technology used by Divergent 3D, creators of the world's first 3D-printed supercar, is based around combining traditional 3D-printed joints with carbon fibre cross-sections to create industrial strength modular automotive frames that can be assembled in a matter of minutes.
As the demand for new and innovative uses of 3D printing grows, the supporting technology is advancing to keep pace. 3D printing techniques - in their current processes and future iterations - provide a critical service for automotive companies looking to achieve the flexibility they need to invest more, build faster, and reduce costs.