What are the benefits of 3D printing in automotive design?

By Marcel Spiegler, 3D Systems
Marcel Spiegler, a senior executive at 3D Systems, discusses how 3D printing is accelerating automotive design, development and efficiency...

Success and growth depend on constant innovation to stay ahead of the competition. In fact, last May Harvard Business Review found that ten times more is spent on R&D than on advertising around the world today. But for many traditional manufacturers, adopting digital technology in their workflows can still be seen as an insurmountable challenge, with major financial implications that are not always realistic, leaving them struggling to know how to compete.

This can be particularly true of the automotive industry, largely due to the higher number of parts required in production. Leading automotive manufacturers are relying on additive manufacturing (AM) to not only accelerate the product development cycle but also to reduce resources such as time and energy. Additive manufacturing is already transforming automotive production workflows, impacting everything from R&D to supply chain and production.

Iterative Research and Development

Additive manufacturing has revolutionised R&D for vehicle manufacturers - increasingly being used to reduce development times, improve prototyping workflows and deliver innovative parts that would not be possible using traditional techniques. In several major US auto manufacturers, 80 to 90 per cent of each initial prototype assembly has been 3D printed. Some of the most popular components are air intakes, parts of the exhaust and ducting. These parts are designed digitally, 3D printed, and fitted on a car in short order, then tested through multiple iterations. Rapid prototyping enables a shorter development phase and reduced time to final part.

Avoiding Supply Chain Disruption

Most volume car manufacturers use just-in-time manufacturing, where large quantities of parts arrive at the production line immediately before assembly to reduce the need for costly warehouse space. AM can facilitate this process to create production parts on-site, should there be disruptions to a manufacturer’s supply chain.

For example, during a recent planned release of a new car, the tooling for the box that contained the engine control unit (ECU) was manufactured incorrectly. As a result, the launch of this new vehicle was set to be delayed. To avoid the costly wait time for new tooling from a third-party supplier, AM was employed. The first several hundred cars produced in that run included ECU’s housed in boxes created using direct digital production. The CAD file was optimized for 3D printing, resulting in an end-use production part in a fraction of the time needed for re-tooling.

Customization in the Specialty Car Industry

One of the most intriguing examples of real-world part production is with specialty car manufacturers such as sports cars, luxury cars and hypercars. These manufacturers produce low volume, prestigious and exotic cars for the most discerning customers. Because of the unique vehicles they manufacture, they are also looking for ways to create parts for these cars that are out of the ordinary.

In this case, AM is being used to create custom brackets, spacers and grommets as well as complex, specialised, units made to the individual requirements of the purchaser. One great example is the creation of personalised inscriptions for interior components such as the dashboard or doors.

AM Fueling the Rise of Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) are gaining popularity with consumers as an ‘environmentally-friendlier’ mode of transportation. The incorporation of battery power versus an internal combustion engine has not removed requirements for weight reduction and engine cooling from the automotive manufacturing equation.

While recent advances have been made to reduce the weight of the batteries which power EVs, they continue to be one of the heavier components of the vehicle. Increased weight of the vehicle impacts efficiency and performance. Therefore, as engineers design components for these vehicles, they are looking for ways to reduce weight in each part. Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) causes engineers to rethink how they create components – allowing them to produce parts in ways not possible with traditional technologies. This results in parts with unique geometries – often at a reduced weight - that can be produced as a single final part versus multiple pieces requiring assembly. The result is reduced burden on the powertrain which helps increase vehicle range.

Another innovation possible through the power of AM is a 3D-printed cooling jacket that acts as a heat exchanger. An EV’s electric motor and battery can generate a great deal of heat, especially during charging. To create the part, a designer scanned the car’s motor and battery, optimized the design using AM software, and produced the part using a 3D printer. The bespoke design of this cooling jacket draws heat away from these vital components of the vehicle, helping reduce wear-and-tear – thus optimizing the life of the parts. As automotive manufacturers continue to embrace AM, this is one area with incredible potential for the future.

Helping Automakers Pioneer in the Fast Lane

The quest to out-innovate competitors and reduce costs for every aspect of product development are business as usual in the automotive industry. Thorough, innovative design and engineering requires precise, reliable technology solutions – and this is where AM can play an integral role. Additive manufacturing complements traditional technologies in an automotive manufacturing workflow and is transforming a variety of applications including creating replacement parts for vintage automobiles, prototyping parts for the latest automotive releases, and developing unique parts for one-of-a-kind creations. The result is improved efficiency and reduced time to final part, which is accelerating innovation and competitive advantage. Automakers the world over are seeing the benefits AM can bring, and the tremendous potential to manufacture parts – and vehicles – in ways never before possib


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