Printing the car of Tomorrow
The rise of additive manufacturing – or 3D printing – technology has changed the automotive manufacturing process over the past few years, with many now predicting that this is how the car of the future will be built.
From building functional prototypes, to mid- and high-volume production of parts, to aftermarket and spare part manufacturers, additive manufacturing provides the ability to build complex parts and concepts quickly, providing many benefits that traditional manufacturing methods simply can’t.
In addition to the short turn around in creating prototype parts by additive manufacturing opposed to traditional manufacturing, the digital workspace used for additive manufacturing allows increasingly complex parts designs to be created. This means manufacturers are less confined by rigged, pre-built parts and can be more creative and design more ergonomic shapes while combining multiple parts into one larger structure.
This also means manufacturers can print a small number of parts on demand when developing prototypes and pilot runs of various parts. This allows more creativity as there is an almost infinite supply of parts on hand, while making the process more economical in terms of per-part cost.
Having parts available on demand in a ‘digital warehouse’ is not only beneficial for printing parts quickly, but it also reduces the need to spend copious amounts of money moving raw pieces of material around the world to be altered and used.
This gives global car manufacturers the ability to send digital designs of parts and components from one warehouse to another anywhere in the world, streamlining the manufacturing process and allowing manufacturers to produce only the parts they need, precisely when and where they need them.
The emergence of additive manufacturing technology is also having an impact on the amount of material waste being created. Because manufacturers can now print specific, highly customised pieces, there is less need to re-design parts or material to fit, leading to less waste being produced.
But while some aspects of the manufacturing process can become more cost effective and efficient thanks to additive manufacturing, we are still seemingly not yet at the point where it is the go-to method for mass production.
Why is this?
The argument against mass adoption of additive manufacturing largely comes down to three factors. Cost, materials and speed.
While it can be quicker to print parts for prototypes with a quick turnaround, the initial outlay of a 3D printing system can reach upwards of $1 million, including facilities to store the system and equipment.
Add to this the cost of labor and high cost of raw materials compatible with 3D printing and the process quickly becomes unjustifiable for many manufacturers.
In terms of speed, the process of mass printing parts still pales in comparison to mass production at this stage, with the fastest printing system capable of producing around 100 cubic centimetres per hour.
However, solutions to these problems are continually being tackled.
3D printing technology is continuing to make strides in advancement as manufacturers continue to experiment with ways they can incorporate the technology.
For example, developing 3D systems that cater to specific needs may be an option in the near future. Manufacturers can determine if they need just a few thousands of a specific part, or if they want to mass produce a part, and determine which system will best suit them.
With these advancements continuing to move the technology forward, it is only a matter of time until the cars we drive are printed.
15 April 2020