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Ramon Pastor Ramon Pastor
global head and general manager of 3D metals

A Big Automotive Opportunity for AM

March 4, 2022

The automotive industry is in the midst of a massive transformation to a new generation of electric and autonomous vehicles, with some of the most innovative business leaders on the planet playing a substantial role in this transformation. And, many of them have come to recognize how valuable additive and digital manufacturing can be in enabling their new visions.

At the same time, new technologies allow OEMs to meet the demands of a consumer market increasingly seeking personalization and sustainability. As these trends continue to accelerate in 2022, I expect to see 3D printing gain a larger foothold in the auto industry. This technology can and will play a critical role in the advancement of electric and autonomous vehicles and the growing need to produce cars, trucks and other vehicles tailored more closely than ever to consumer needs.

Inroads Already Made

HP-Automotive-VW-Metal-JetAutomakers have been key early adopters of 3D printing technology. Traditional manufacturing methods move slowly from ideation to production, and incur higher costs at every step along the way. Improved 3D printing technologies have produced additional speed and efficiency gains, making the wider adoption of these processes more attractive than ever. For example, Volkswagen employs AM to speed up manufacturing processes and create lightweight components for a number of its vehicles, and has since produced 10,000 metal parts in partnership with HP and GKN.

This increased efficiency also unlocks new capabilities with the potential to change the industry. OEMs that produce metal 3D-printed parts easily can integrate digital manufacturing into large or small-scale runs with no impact on speed, quality or cost. This capability gives customers the freedom to iterate quickly, accommodating a new level of experimentation in the design process. As a result, manufacturers can respond to market demands with greater agility — a powerful competitive edge in today’s business environment. Designers and automakers are poised to push the envelope on vehicle design to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. AM will make that differentiation possible.

Advances in metal binder jetting that allow for greater production volumes make the technology even better suited for automotive applications. For Volkswagen, advanced binder jetting capabilities provide the ability to mass-produce components quickly, increasing productivity and producing components that weigh half as much as those made from sheet steel.

The Promise of Electrification

HP-Automotive-Mighty-Duct-Assembly-SiemensThe age of the electric vehicle (EV) has arrived, and 3D printing will play an essential role in the industry’s continuing evolution. The requirements for EVs—weight reduction, less material usage to enhance sustainability, creation of new customized parts—play to the established strengths of AM. But the biggest opportunity for OEMs lies in rethinking how automobiles are designed and created.

The transition to EVs represents just one part of a seismic shift in consumer values that demands more sustainable and efficient technologies. This mandate incentivizes manufacturers to redesign every aspect of the vehicle as they look for ways to increase range and improve performance while dramatically reducing the carbon footprint. 3D printing supports this transition by bringing efficiency to the manufacturing process and enabling a design process that supports aggressive, iterative experimentation. The lack of an internal combustion engine in EVs also lowers the vehicle’s operating temperature, opening the door to the use of lower-cost 3D-printed plastic components. 

In an EV, every increase in efficiency extends the vehicle’s range—a critical consideration as EV manufacturers compete to replace gas and diesel cars as seamlessly as possible. AM’s ease with complex geometries makes it possible to replace multiple, relatively simple parts with a single, complex part, unlocking new potential for optimizing all elements of a car’s design. 

The Mighty Duct collaboration between HP and Siemens provides a perfect example. Here, a single 3D-printed component replaced an assembly of six injection-molded parts. Consolidating parts cut costs by 34.3 percent, while the new duct design increased system flow by 22 percent. This feat simply wouldn’t have been possible with traditional production methods. In addition, AM gives designers the opportunity for further optimization across a range of elements in EV fluid and thermal management—fluid manifold, coolant pump, turbine fan, damper doors, seals, hose-transition points—that cut costs, reduce power loss and potentially extend range.  

Simpler Supply Chains, Personalized Production

The past couple years have shown just how disruption in the supply chain can impact the automotive market. Guarding against supply-chain risks has become an essential part of a good business strategy for companies looking for resilient long-term growth. In short, it’s time to rethink traditional processes. Metal 3D printing increases speed by shortening tool setup and tool exchange. This efficiency makes a more resilient type of supply chain possible, as any location with a 3D printer essentially keeps a limitless “inventory” in its digital files, ready for fabrication on-demand. 

And, this type of supply chain offers a perfect fit with the trend toward greater personalization. Imagine a new model for production where vehicle bodies continue to be assembled at centralized factories but then are shipped to regional facilities. At these regional facilities, the vehicles are finished with customized 3D-printed parts that serve the needs of a region, a culture or even an individual customer.

This type of system ultimately could move manufacturing much closer to consumers, reducing cost, waste and operational footprint. As automakers continue to see the impact of cultural differences on customer needs and expectations, a flexible, easily adaptable design process will allow them to respond quickly to insights gleaned from ongoing advancements in data analytics.

Should the processes become efficient enough, we also could see a boom in aftermarket customization, whether on the DIY level or through third-party service providers. AM also offers great potential for keeping older cars on the road longer, and could expand options for new-car sales. For instance, a luxury brand could release specialty vehicle models in extremely limited runs as could a mass-market brand.

Automakers continue to innovate in design, function and sustainability, creating new experiences for customers at a time of shifting consumer values and environmental imperatives. This period of disruption calls for new methods of design and manufacturing. Under these circumstances, 3D printing provides the ultimate tool. It delivers straightforward wins in efficiency and footprint while fostering a liberated new approach to design that supports greater experimentation and personalization. 3DMP

Industry-Related Terms: Edge, Model
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms


See also: Siemens Industry, Inc., HP Inc., GKN Sinter Metals Engineering GmbH



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