3D Printing Going Mainstream In Auto Industry

3D printing is moving out of the shadows into the mainstream at automobile companies. The beauty of what is known as additive manufacturing is that it eliminates the time and cost of making molds. Products that require a mold usually are not cost competitive unless they are made in large quantities. 3D printing, on the other hand, is ideal for producing a small number of finished products.

3d printing

Until recently, parts made by 3D printers have been brittle and not very durable. Also, the number of materials that could be used in 3D printers has been quite limited. But that is changing.

According to Automotive News, Carbon3D, a startup in Redwood City, Calif., is supplying production parts made from polymers to BMW and Ford. Some MINI models use a 3D printed decorative trim piece. The Ford Transit Connect uses 3D printed bumper parts.

Last September, Alcoa invested $60 million to develop a 3D printer than can make parts from from aluminum, titanium and other alloys. General Electric has begun using 3-D printers to manufacture fuel nozzles from powdered metals for jet engines.

The technology “has definitely advanced a lot over the last several years,” says Deb Holton, director of industry strategy for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. “That’s their dream — to make parts without using a mold.”

Until now, 3D printers have been slow and could work with just a few raw materials. The layered components could crumble under the stress of everyday use. They primarily were used for prototyping new designs or for display purposes only.

The printers Carbon3D makes are up to 100 times faster than previous generation printers and can turn out objects in a variety of raw materials. More importantly, their parts match the strength of parts produced by injection molds. Light is used to harden plastic resin as it rises in one piece out of a reservoir in the machine.

“Since you get rid of the layers, you get a higher quality part,” says Kirk Phelps, Carbon3D’s vice president of product management. “You get a product that is very strong, heat resistant and flexible.”

Jerry Rhinehart, manager of additive manufacturing development at Delphi, says his company will install a batch of 3D printed connectors and other electrical components in a 25 car fleet this June for road tests. For most mass produced components, 3-D printers will not be competitive with injection molds, Rhinehart notes.

But if a sub-assembly of four or five pieces can be replaced by a single 3D printed component, that can lead to lower costs, reduce weight and a simplified assembly process, he says. “You can make it smaller, lighter and simpler,” Rhinehart says. “Now you have complete design freedom. That’s a wonderful business model for this technology.”

3D printing could revolutionize the aftermarket, especially for parts suppliers like Pep Boys. It could cut costs and save warehouse space by printing parts to order. “Why keep parts in a warehouse for 10 or 20 years when you can maintain a digital CAD file instead?” Rhinehart asks.

Thomas Kurfess, a mechanical engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers says, “Pep Boys could download a digital file from General Motors and print it. So GM doesn’t have to worry about inventories or the tooling to produce it. They could get a tremendous increase on their profit margins.”

Local Motors may be ahead of its time by 3D printing entire automobiles, but additive technology will definitely find more and more uses in the automotive industry in coming years.

Photo credit:  Mirko Tobias Schäfer via flickr, some rights reserved

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.