Saving and accelerating

by Thomas Masuch — 2019/08/27

How AM is helping to shape the development of automobile production

Essentially, the automotive industry is a very cost-driven industry. Nevertheless, additive manufacturing has been able to become established here as well and has played an important role for many years. Every major automotive group and major supplier has its own AM development department. Since this modern technology can help to accelerate the development and production of new models, to individualize cars and above all to save large sums of money - for example with spare parts and manufacturing equipment.

About a year and a half ago, BMW subsidiary MINI launched the »MINI Yours Customised« project, a program in which individualised components from the 3D printer are installed in the car. For BMW, additive manufacturing is nothing new anymore for a long time: Since 2010, one million parts have been 3D-printed in R&D, prototype production and series production. »The use of additive-manufactured components in automotive series production is currently growing strongly,« explained Dr. Jens Ertel, Head of the Additive Manufacturing Center of the BMW Group. By the way, the millionth part was a guide rail for the window of the BMW i8 Roadster, which is manufactured at the Leipzig plant.

Big savings with additively manufactured production equipment

The advantages of additive manufacturing are not only evident in series components: Companies can already save large amounts of money by using additively manufactured production equipment - and this, for example, in the plastics sector, often with relatively manageable investments. In this area, the number of applications and possibilities is increasing - also due to the development of new materials. Companies such as Audi use additive manufacturing, for example in toolmaking, to increase the performance of their presses.

VW also associates major goals with 3D printing. »A complete vehicle will probably not come out of the 3D printer so quickly - but the number and size of components from the 3D printer will increase significantly,« explained Dr. Martin Goede, Head of Technology Planning and Development at Volkswagen. »Our goal is to integrate printed structural parts into the next generation of vehicles. In the long term, we expect a continuous increase in unit numbers, component sizes and technical requirements - up to and including soccer-sized components with a unit output of more than 100,000 units per year.«

component costs fall

Of course, the next few years will undoubtedly continue to see further milling, turning, casting, forging and pressing in the factory halls of automobile manufacturers and suppliers. But there are developments that will make additive manufacturing even more interesting for this cost-driven industry: 3D printing of composite materials achieves such high strength and stability that some metal parts can be replaced. The performance of the machines continues to increase and component costs fall. And in terms of developing the costs for metal parts, quite recent additive technologies such as »binder jetting« or »material jetting« can cause a significant leap forward. This is one of the reasons why BMW has a stake in Desktop Metal, one of the big, young American 3D printer manufacturers.

Increased demand for e-cars is also pushing automobile manufacturers to bring new models onto the market even faster. Additive manufacturing not only offers the opportunity to shorten the development time. As more and more components are 3D-printed, production can start much faster because, for example, tools do not have to be ordered and manufactured first. At the same time, manufacturers are trying to gain a competitive advantage by further individualizing components such as gear knobs or keys. And the topic of spare parts will also be an indispensable part of 3D printing in the future: It is too tempting to have the prospect of dispensing with stock-keeping and being able to offer components reliably even after decades independently of suppliers.