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Automotive Industry Could Be Next Advanced Users of 3D Printing
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By Scott Dunham | 3DPrint

If the past two years are any indication, the next car you buy will almost certainly have been created in part thanks to the technology. Automotive manufacturers have been using 3D printers for rapid prototyping purposes for a long time. But what’s exciting in today’s automotive industry is the degree to which major names in consumer vehicles are starting to apply 3D printing to their product development, and now even manufacturing processes.

Over the past two decades, automotive manufacturers have gone from using a single rapid prototyping machine to make a few complex models, to today using 3D printers for a variety of more advanced uses in both rapid prototyping and production tools. For some automotive companies, 3D printing has become a value driver for a few particular projects, to an absolute necessity in development of new automobiles.

Stages of Adoption

As of 2014, several well-known automotive manufacturers are printing around 100,000 prototype parts per year. Many of these parts have evolved from what was being printed just five years ago, from fit test models and concept iterations, to more functional parts on test engines and concept cars. The creation of custom hand tools and fixtures are also being advanced with 3D printing and becoming requirements for some auto manufacturers in the traditional assembly of automobiles.

It’s encouraging to see 3D printing being applied in such relatively high volumes and in more advanced, high value, applications in automotive manufacturing. As part of our research for a recent report, we engaged with professionals in the automotive and 3D printing industries to develop an adoption model for the use of 3D printing within the automotive industry; the end result was the adoption model set out below.

After roughly three decades of use of rapid prototyping equipment and 3D printers, many automotive manufacturers have moved beyond the initial stage of adoption, or the Basic Rapid Prototyping stage. Low volumes for prototype parts for specialized use cases to speed product development are typically the limit for this early stage of adoption.

Not all automotive manufacturers have moved onto more advanced stages, however, as some have begun purchasing their first 3D printing systems in the past several years. However, since the technology has been established to a fairly significant degree by the market, most of these late adopters will likely move up the chain quickly.

A slight majority of large automotive companies have now moved into the next stage of 3D printing adoption, which we call Distributed Idea Generation. This stage is characterized by the use of larger fleets of printers, usually of multiple print technologies, which a multitude of
engineering and product design teams may have access to. In some cases, low-cost printers have been utilized on an individual basis to enable physical idea generation from engineers to boost creativity. Some automotive users in this stage have utilized very high volume for prototype parts.

Leaders in adoption of 3D printing within the automotive industry mostly reside in the third phase, or the Advanced Prototyping and Exploration phase. This stage is usually less structured than other stages, due to the nature of exploratory uses for 3D printing technology. Many automotive companies have taken to utilizing 3D printing for the production of hand tools and other fixtures or jigs to increase efficiency in the traditional automobile assembly procedure.

In the area of tooling, some gray area is observable between this third stage, and the final stage. The creation of a one-off or special use tool does not, in our opinion, move any particular company straight to the final stage of adoption. Rather, we consider this more as an exploratory use of 3D printing, and thus categorize it as within the third stage.

In this third stage, the use of 3D printing for automotive prototypes is also fundamentally different than that in previous stages, in that the technology is consistently used to directly create, or directly aid in the creation, of functional parts used in pre-final products or assemblies.

This usually comes in the form of concept cars and test engines. The regular, serialized use of specific 3D-printed jigs, fixtures, or other tools would qualify as an advanced use of 3D printing technology in the automotive industry today. To be considered truly advanced, these
tools must be necessary for the regular production of commercial vehicles (i.e. not concept models). There is at least one example of this in the automotive manufacturing community today.

Performance motorsports and racing car companies also have ventured into the most advanced stage of the model, known as the Rapid Manufacturing and Tooling stage, with the creation of true end-use parts in high performance automobiles. These parts include a wide variety of uses, but generally are produced in very low volumes today.

The future of 3D printing in automotive manufacturing is in the production of end-use components in both metal, high performance thermoplastics, and advanced materials. Although the automotive industry in general is still far from widespread utilization of the technology for these purposes, these earliest adopters in the industry are already experimenting with the concept.

Challenges

In order to get to the pinnacle of 3D printing adoption in automotive, users have to learn how to utilize additive fabrication to positively
affect the three major trends driving automotive manufacturing of tomorrow – increased fuel economy, higher performance components, and product differentiation. Today’s 3D printers are capable of enhancing all of these areas, but it may take some time for automotive manufacturers to really alter automobile design processes to truly embrace additive technology.

While 3D printing technology will of course continue to evolve (and quickly!), the real challenge to more advanced adoption of the technology is not related to what 3D printers aren’t capable of. Rather, I would argue that the biggest challenge is getting automotive manufacturing personnel and management to think about 3D printers as more than just rapid prototyping tools.

Manufacturers of 3D printers need to do more to relay the true capabilities of their products in value messages that feature ways to increase fuel economy, increase part performance, and differentiate automotive products. This, in turn, will eventually help to break the traditional paradigm of automobile design –tradeoffs between performance and feasibility.

Still, the future for 3D printing is bright. With manufacturers of all corners of the market stepping up prototype volumes and moving towards functional test parts, the automotive industry might just be the thing everyone’s talking about when discussing 3D printing in the near future.

Scott Dunham is Senior Business Analyst at SmarTech Markets Publishing. Scott has years of research experience in the areas of advanced manufacturing and has been a featured speaker at 3D printing industry events around the world.

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