Recent advances in Additive Manufacturing have allowed the Automotive industry to produce lighter, stronger, and safer products; while reducing both lead times and development costs. The majority of existing utilisation of 3D printing is for rapid prototyping but the developments in machines and materials is now enabling manufacturers to integrate printed products into production vehicles.
The manufacturing requirements for Automotive engineering are not dissimilar to those seen in Aerospace – strength-to-weight ratio is key. 3D printing can be used to reduce component weight while maintaining strength requirements by consolidating assemblies into single parts or using internal geometries to minimise material usage. This reduction in part numbers can have a significant effect on cutting costs as there are fewer quality assurance steps required and inventory requirements are reduced.
3D printing is being utilised to cut down on outsourcing and create bespoke parts on demand at a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing methods. The requirement for jigs, tools and fixtures within the Automotive industry is massive and the ability to create custom tools for specific applications is massively beneficial to manufacturers. The process to print, test, re-design and re-print new ideas takes a matter of days rather than weeks or months with traditional methods.
A Selection of 3D printing applications in Automotive
Scale models are often used in the Automotive industry to communicate design ideas and showcase the different forms of a vehicles’ design. The ability to effectively communicate design intention between multi-disciplinary teams is incredibly important. These models can also be used for aerodynamic testing during development to enable engineers to optimise designs.
3D printing can produce full-scale components such as wing mirrors, handles, dashboard components and even wheels to be used for form/fit testing. Low cost FDM prints can be used to ensure that parts will fit together in larger assemblies and high detail, full colour prints allow designers to judge the aesthetics.
Not only can 3D prints be used directly for pre-production parts, they can also be used to create low cost rapid tooling to produce low to medium quantities of injection moulded, thermoformed, and die-bent components. This method of tooling production reduces costs and mitigates the risk involved in investing in high cost tooling.
Due to the numbers generally involved with production volumes in the Automotive industry (often greater than 100,000 parts per year), additive manufacturing has predominantly been used for prototyping, production aids and scale models. Development of industrial printers and printing materials has seen an increase in utilisation of 3D printing for final production parts. This practise is becoming more and more commonplace for higher-end vehicle manufacturers that have lower production numbers in general.
One of the major benefits of 3D printing in general is the ability to produce fully custom, bespoke parts cost effectively. In the Automotive industry, components can be tailored to specific vehicle setups for different terrain or to individual drivers. Additive manufacturing also enables for parts to be easily optimised topographically and for assemblies to be consolidated into single parts.