The automotive industry has been at the forefront of pioneering the applications of 3D printing technology in manufacturing. The rate of adoption of 3D printing technology across the industry has grown substantially over the last 3 years, both as a rapid prototyping tool and increasingly for the batch production of parts. As additive manufacturing technology has matured, it has brought with it increasing developments in both 3D printing technology capabilities and in materials. This, combined with increased precision and reliability of the technology has contributed to the development of more applications, further increasing the adoption of the technology throughout the industry.
Examples of automotive applications of 3D printing include:
- Prototyping of parts
- Tooling, jigs and fixtures
- Low volume parts production
- End-user customisation and personalised parts
- Small batch or on-demand production of spare parts for classic cars and discontinued models
Automotive Case Studies
The following video shows how Ultimaker S5 3D printers are being used at Ford’s pilot plant in Cologne, Germany. This plant pioneers the creation of each new vehicle design before it goes into mass production. They have a complete small-scale manufacturing line, which develops cars up to several years before they go into production. Lars Bognar, Research Engineer at Ford’s Research & Advanced Engineering team in Aachen, has been working on creating an optimized workflow to create jigs, tools, and fixtures for Ford’s manufacturing process.
You can learn more and also see other ways in which Ford are pioneering the use of additive manufacturing technology in the Complete Ford Case Study.
Volkswagen is also taking advantage of 3D printing on their production line, by investing in Seven Ultimaker 3 3D printers, in 2016, by 2017 they were producing over 93% of all previously externally manufactured tools in-house. The transition to 3D printing saved Volkswagen Autoeuropa 91% in tool development costs (saving approximately €325,000 in 2017 alone) and reducing development time by 95%.
On top of these time and cost savings, the 3D printed tools are more ergonomic and yield greater operator engagement as feedback can more easily be incorporated into design iterations – all adding up to unprecedented efficiency levels. The 3D printed tools Volkswagen Autoeuropa produces are considered best practice in the Volkswagen group.
You can learn more and also see how 3D printing has created a more efficient workflow in the Complete Volkswagen Case Study.
3D Printing in the Bloodhound LSR Car
Bloodhound LSR (formerly Bloodhound SSC) is a UK Engineering project aimed at trying to break the world land speed record using the most advanced straight-line racing car ever built. In October 2019 the Bloodhound LSR car performed a test run and reached a speed of 628mph (1010kmph), but its ultimate aim is to break the current land speed record of 763mph and ultimately reach a speed of 1000mph.
The Bloodhound LSR car is one example where 3D printing technology has been used to create custom one-off parts. Our friends at Renishaw have 3D printed a prototype nose cone and a lightweight custom steering wheel that perfectly fits the hands of driver Andy Green from titanium. This demonstrates not only the capabilities of 3D printing for structural safety-critical parts but also how 3D printing can be used in future for customised parts.
The Future of 3D Printing in Automotive
As research and technology continue to move forward and the automotive industry embeds the technology further into their workflows, 3D printing will be adopted more widely both by established automotive manufacturers but also new companies.
One future application is the use of 3D printing to manufacture more and more of the actual vehicle parts, this allows parts to be customised to end-user requirements. In fact, Mini are already allowing customers to design their own interior and exterior trim components via an online configurator which are then 3D printed and supplied to the customer to fit themselves. This includes personalisable dashboard trims, sill plates and puddle lights that project personalised text onto the ground.
Another advancement is the use of 3D printing to 3D print the actual vehicles especially as cars are being redesigned for electric power. Although a number of prototype concept cars have been produced that are 3D printed, the reality of 3D printed cars being available to the general public is closer than you might think. In fact XEV, an innovative start-up company has designed a small low-speed electric vehicle for urban use, the XEV YOYO and in late 2019 (prior to any COVID delays) were projecting to mass produce these and have them available in 2020, so they should be available to buy very soon.