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 that were made, in our opinion. 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 rapid prototyping, tooling, jigs and fixtures. However, the last two decades delivered big progress, and additive manufacturing in automotive is expanding beyond these applications, slowly becoming a part of the supply chain.
Companies using Additive Manufacturing as a part of their supply chain
Here are a few examples of top-notch automakers integrating additive manufacturing in order to accelerate production time and reduce costs, their efforts, goals, and the 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 to developing digital transformation and incorporating 3D printing and other industry 4.0 technologies into their production lines.
There are many examples for Ford's enthusiasm for Additive Manufacturing. Last year, Ford revealed a project co-funded by Ford and the ExOne Co., expert teams have developed a process for rapid and reliable binder jet 3D printing and aluminum sintering of that is able to yield comparable properties to die casting.
A couple of years back, Ford Performance, which is the high-performance division at Ford Motor Company, printed what's 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 to manufacture using traditional methods. It took five days to print the manifold, which 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 additive manufacturing in many ways in the future, and potentially scale AM to be an integral manufacturing strategy alongside traditional manufacturing methods.
BMW is one of the early adopters of additive manufacturing, which 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 the production of 50,000 components per year and 10,000 individual spare parts.
In 2022 The BMW Group has announced the successful resultes of the industrialisation and digitalisation of AM project (IDAM) for automotive processes, and reported the development of automated metal 3D printing production line, which is capable of producing 50,000 parts per year.
For many years, BMW has shown several success stories in implementing printed metal parts in its vehicles. For example, BMW chose to utilize AM 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 which is produced with 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 a 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 your 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 applications like tooling, jigs & fixtures, and prototyping. Almost all of its tooling production has been switched and is based today on AM, saving the company hundreds of thousands of dollars each year ever 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, proof that it is leading the way in AM and innovation in the automotive industry.
For 2020-2021, Volkswagen’s vision is to industrialize AM and make mass production of fully safety-certified metal parts a reality. By partnering with HP, Volkswagen is the first automotive manufacturer to use the “HP Metal Jet” latest technology, a technology that enables the production of components without needing to develop and manufacture other tools. This significantly speeds up processes and allows to manufacture of large quantities in a 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 additively manufactured parts into its vehicles.
Final words - Applications of 3D printing in the automotive sector
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 manufacturers are not only investing significant efforts in trying to quantify the potential of AM on future production but are already unlocking its benefits, such as lower costs and lead time, by shifting manufacturing of end-use parts to 3D printing.
Indeed, we cannot state that AM has made its way to being a legitimate method of manufacturing in every engineer’s toolbox, but we do see the automotive industry becomes aware of the advantages of additive manufacturing, paving the way for adoption with other industries (like aerospace and machinery) following closely.