The Best Applications of 3D printing in the Automotive Industry
Updated: Jun 5
In this series of articles, we’ll explore the current status of additive manufacturing in different industries, and take a glance at the most interesting applications of the last year. The first article features the automotive industry.
Credit: BMW Group
3D printing in the automotive industry is expected to reach a market value of 2.5 billion dollars in the next 3 years.
(Source: Center for Automotive Research)
The most common uses of additive manufacturing in the automotive industry are still prototyping, tooling, jigs and fixtures. However, the last two decades delivered a big progress, and additive manufacturing in automotive is expanding beyond these applications.
Here are few examples from top-notch automakers using additive manufacturing, their efforts, goals and boldest applications.
Ford Motor Company
Did you know that Ford bought the third 3D printer ever made? It was back in 1988, but a lot of progress has been made since then. Ford had invested $45 million in its Advanced Manufacturing Center, dedicated for developing digital transformation and incorporating 3D printing and other industry 4.0 technologies to their production lines. Earlier this year, Ford Performance, which is the high performance division at Ford Motor Company, has printed what claimed to be the largest 3D printed metal automotive part in history. The aluminum manifold inlet is a complex web‑like structure that was impossible manufacture using traditional methods. It took five days to print the manifold, that was later installed in a 1977 Ford F-150 Hoonitruck owned by the popular rally driver Ken Block.
Credit: Ford Performance
As for long term goals, Ford promises it would integrate 3D printing in many ways in the future, and potentially scaling additive manufacturing to be an integral manufacturing method.
BMW is one of the early adopters of additive manufacturing, that has been experimenting with the technology for several years. Since 2010 it had already exceeded the one million 3D printed parts mark. As for mass production, BMW is aiming for production of 50,000 components per year and 10,000 individual spare parts.
BMW has shown several success stories in implementing printed metal parts to their vehicles. For example, BMW chose to utilize 3D printing in the manufacturing of two parts of its i8 Roadster. One is the convertible’s roof bracket which has a unique complex shape that is very hard to produce using traditional methods. The second is its window guide rail that is produced in a capacity of approximately 100 units a day.
Another application of additive manufacturing technology can be found in the brakes of the new BMW M850i Coupe Night Sky Edition. BMW used metal 3D printer to print the entire brake caliper, holding on to the elegant design concept and even visible branding on the part.
Credit: BMW Group
A little bonus fact for those of you who have always dreamed of having their own BMW sports car - BMW is sharing the 3D STL file of the latest sports car, on their website. Allowing vehicle owners to customize and print a BMW MINI scale model free of charge.
Volkswagen has been using in-house 3D printing for several years, installing almost a hundred 3D printers in its factories to date. The main use of additive manufacturing technology at Volkswagen is for application like tooling, jigs & fixtures and prototyping. Almost all of its tooling production has been switched and is based today on 3D Printing, saving the company hundreds of thousands of dollars each year since.
Earlier in 2019, Volkswagen group introduced Bugatti’s largest titanium functional component produced by additive manufacturing methods. The eight-piston monobloc brake caliper was printed in the world’s largest titanium 3D printer at the time, in collaboration with German additive manufacturing specialist Laser Zentrum Nord. This was a great milestone for the automaker, a proof that it is leading the way in 3D printing and innovation in the automotive industry.
Credit: Volkswagen Group
For 2020-2021, Volkswagen’s vision is industrializing additive manufacturing and making mass-production of fully safety-certified metal parts a reality. By partnering with HP, Volkswagen is the first automotive manufacturer using the “HP Metal Jet” latest technology, a technology that enables to produce components without needing to develop and manufacture other tools. This significantly speeds up processes and allows to manufacture large quantities in short time. Eventually, Volkswagen wishes to increase production volume up to 50,000 to 100,000 functional parts a year, and implement more and more vital 3D printed parts into its vehicles.
Automotive is the fastest growing vertical using additive manufacturing. Nonetheless, it is one of the most advanced verticals where many applications are already in use and the competition between automakers is very noticeable.
In this turning of the century, most automotive manufactures are not only investing significant efforts in trying to quantify the potential of additive manufacturing on the future production, but are already unlocking its benefits by shifting manufacturing of end-use parts to 3D printing.
Indeed, we cannot state that 3D printing has made its way to being a legitimate method of manufacturing in every engineer’s toolbox, but we do see the automotive industry paving the way for adoption with other industries (like aerospace and machinery) following closely.