3D Printing In the Automotive Industry

With driverless technology being firmly in the headlines recently, it is easy to forget about the other recent advancements in the automotive industry – 3D printing being a major one.

3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing (AM), is paving the way for new car designs, shorter production times and lower manufacturing costs. AM allows the ability to create safer, lighter and more efficient vehicles. The new technology can produce components with fewer design restrictions, which is beneficial in manufacturing products with custom features. This allows for improved functionality to be added, which traditional manufacturing methods are currently unable to provide.

In this article, Steele-Dixon investigates four of the main advantages AM has in the automotive industry.

Accelerated Product Design

Major improvements granted by AM have been implemented during product design stage in the automotive industry. This is arguably one of the most complex stages which require many iterations before the final design is agreed. AM allows manufacturers to produce multiple variations of a product, without the extra costs which were previously involved.

Being able to quickly produce multiple prototypes, manufacturers are now able to test and choose the best design, without having to rely on paper design specifications and plans. Furthermore, customers are also able to test the product and make changes easily until they are happy with the result, where previously this process was long and inefficient.

AM drastically reduces lead times in designing new cars or updating current models, as it allows for testing to be done before the car even hits the production line. Ford Motors is one of the manufacturers which were the first to harness the benefits of AM and managed to save billions of pounds by producing prototypes in hours, rather than months. As a result of being able to run adequate testing prior to the production stage, Ford has been able to increase the overall quality – which is a benefit for both manufacturers and customers.

Improved Supply Chain

With this type of design, material waste can be reduced and components have a lower handling cost. Additionally, AM grants the ability to produce parts on demand – this cuts down overall lead time and therefore improves market responsiveness.

The on-location production also has a huge benefit for the production of spare parts. Previously, replacements had to be mass-manufactured and bought in bulk in order to save costs. This has critical cost implications, as parts would need to be stored resulting in capital being tied up in inventory. However, parts can now be produced by AM quickly, as and when needed – removing waste. This drives cost reductions and decreases the supply chain complexity, enabling manufacturers to provide a better service to customers.

AM eliminates manufacturers need to rely on different suppliers for various parts, therefore risks of delays are greatly reduced. The ability to produce on-site drastically cuts down the number of steps and people involved in the supply chain and facilitates cost reduction. Being able to customise parts to specific applicants quickly enables manufacturers to optimise vehicles in a way which is not possible through traditional manufacturing.

Customisable Tools

For manufacturers, acquiring the necessary tools and machinery involves huge costs. This not only implies the cost to purchase but also includes when maintenance of machinery is required – which can disrupt the assembly line and cost thousands of pounds in downtime per minute. AM seems to solve this as not only can it produce car components, but AM also allows for the fabrication of customised tools.

BMW has long since been an adopter of AM technology – back in 2014, the German manufacturer started producing ergonomic hand tools which were lighter and reduced any pain and strain for employees performing the task. These small tools alone helped reduce project time and enabled huge cost savings.

Environmental Sustainability

AM technology helps the environment in numerous ways:

Additionally, components can be produced with a significantly lower weight which can result in improved fuel efficiency. This not only helps manufacturers comply with fuel standards but also delivers value to consumers through greater miles per gallon.

Through utilising AM, manufacturers can take advantage of different, lighter materials such as carbon fibre – Ford Motors have done just that to improve the fuel efficiency in their vehicles which can aid competitiveness – a winner for both consumers and manufacturers.

Overall, bringing 3D printing to the automotive manufacturing landscape is proving to have numerous benefits – it is increasingly becoming a necessity in order to keep up with competition, rather than a complementary technology. As the AM develops, costs will undoubtedly fall making it more accessible than ever – seeing high-quality materials enter the market which will keep automotive production driving forward.

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