For some years now, rapid prototyping has been helping automotive manufacturers to cut down lead times for designing new cars or updating current models. The use of 3D manufacturing means auto manufacturers can test a variety of prototypes before production. Ford says that prototype parts can be built in days or hours, versus months, at far less cost than using traditional methods since 3D printing eliminates the need for tooling and molds.
In “3D opportunity in the automotive industry,” Deloitte University Press describes how that AM is enabling the fabrication of customized tools to boost shop floor production. It cites the use of AM by BMW in direct manufacturing to make hand tools that are used in test and assembly. BMW reported the customized tools helped save 58 percent in overall costs. It also reduced project time by 92 percent.
The use of metal as a printing material is still in its early stages. Audi, as one example, is using 3D to produce the metal water pump wheel of its DTM racecar, which replaces a previously plastic part. The German car manufacturer is also using the technology to produce spare parts and in turn disrupt the supply chain.
The current method of dealers ordering parts from a central location is costly and time consuming. While Audi hasn’t as yet implemented 3D printing across its entire part catalog, by virtue of placing 3D printers around the globe it is able to print certain parts on demand. Besides benefiting the customer, the process is eliminating the over production of certain parts.
Continuous Parts Improvement
The use of 3D printing in the automotive industry doesn’t begin and end with the printed part. As manufacturers embed tracing marks and sensors into the product, they will be able to track every step of a product lifecycle from initial 3D object scan to design through production, quality measurement, delivery and real-world use. Using in-lifecycle information, manufacturers can improve the design and fabrication of future parts.
The potential for a continuous improvement cycle becomes huge as the entire manufacturing process moves seamlessly from physical to digital and back to physical to create a “blended reality.” Manufacturers will be able to improve auto parts based on their performance or use and even modify them for weather and travel patterns.
The use of 3D printing for automotive manufacturing is leading to new levels of innovation. With its potential for customization and convenience, 3D will put consumers in the driver’s seat.
The move to mass production
Over recent years, 3D printing’s technology proposition has expanded considerably from its ‘heritage’ in rapid prototyping for the automotive design studio to producing serial production parts for the production assembly line. Creating highly-tailored tools to increase efficiency on the factory floor is one of the most significant emerging applications of 3D printing in automotive today. As such, Stratasys systems are now a common fixture on factory floors throughout the automotive supply chain.
For example, Opel in Germany has used Stratasys 3D printing for factory floor tools, transforming the in-house production line through more efficient, quicker workflows. Another example is Volvo Trucks in France, which has employed Stratasys’ Fortus 3D Printing Technology to design different durable yet lightweight clamps, jigs, supports and tool holders for the production line at their Lyon-based facility. Replacing metal tools and 3D printing custom tools for direct use on the factory floor, Volvo Trucks estimates that for small quantities of tools, the cost of 3D printing ABS thermoplastic items can be as little as 1€/cm3. Making the same item from metal has resulted in costs of 100€/cm3. Crucially, Volvo Trucks has reduced the time taken to design and manufacture certain tools traditionally produced in metal, from 36 days to just two days in thermoplastic ABSplus – a decrease of more than 94%. Similarly, across the pond in the USA, Ford is also using our FDM-based technology for the manufacture of production-line tools and individual parts.
High-volume production, as seen in automotive assembly lines, is exceptionally sensitive to cycle time efficiency. If the same operation is performed on an assembly line thousands of times a year, shaving a few seconds from the process saves hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars. New technology and material developments from Stratasys and other additive manufacturing companies push the boundaries of what is possible. Tough, durable FDM thermoplastics that withstand rugged manufacturing environments enable auto manufacturers to create custom tools on demand, revise jigs, fixtures and tooling on the fly to improve designs or reduce weight.
Additionally, additive manufacturing can improve working environments and processes for production line operators, which presents a whole new value-add beyond the more obvious and easy-to-quantify advantages associated with the time and cost efficiencies enjoyed from producing the tools. In this case, the opportunity to 3D print tools that are customized to individual operators offers the potential to minimize RSI-related injuries that could invariably impact manufacturing workflow.
Making light work
Crucial to every 3D printing application is production materials. Material development is a constant at Stratasys, with engineers working on – amongst other things – higher chemical resistance for fuel exposure and optimal combinations of toughness, ductility and stiffness for durability. New material introductions, such as Carbon Fiber reinforced Nylon12 launched in 2017, are making new applications in automotive possible. Composite materials like this in 3D printing provide the strength of metal, with the light weight of plastic.
A good degree of recent media attention has focused on aerospace manufacturers making huge savings by switching out heavier metal parts for strong lightweight 3D printed thermoplastic parts. Stratasys’ Fortus 900mc is the industrial workhorse of thermoplastic additive manufacturing, and through focused efforts with partners across the aerospace industry, Stratasys was able to develop a configuration and process methodology that allows for extreme repeatability. While this was developed in the context of certifying aircraft interior parts for the FAA and EASA, that same core value of highly repeatable mechanical properties is exactly what automotive production part approval processes require.
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The drivers in the automotive market are just as tough. The need for fuel efficiency is not going to go away, as environmental groups and politicians continue to pile on the pressure. Lighter vehicles require less energy, whether due to higher fuel mileage or longer battery life. Additive manufacturing offers not only the option of lightweight parts but optimizing performance-to-weight ratios through complex geometric designs, which simply cannot be achieved with other technologies.
As automotive manufacturers undertake these explorations, they are also finding more and more applications to ultimately bring more 3D printed parts on vehicles.
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