Until very recently additive manufacturing – or 3D printing – was being described as “disruptive technology”. It is now mainstream, with OEMs making significant savings when introducing new models. Digital manufacturing is a reality.
As the Stratasys website puts it: “additive manufacturing is changing the way the world makes everything. By enabling you to produce prototypes, tools and final parts directly from CAD data, additive manufacturing creates dramatic reductions in delivery times and production costs, so you can easily respond to customer needs and market changes”.
Automotive Industries (AI) asked Jim Vurpillat, Marketing Director for Automotive and Aerospace at Stratasys, what role additive manufacturing is playing in the automotive industry. Vurpillat: In a broad sense I see additive manufacturing as an enabler to the industry. Its’ first application was to enable designers and engineers to see their vision or part quicker and faster than before, which allowed for more iterations and product improvements. Now, as we see the process reach the manufacturing floor, it is enabling engineers to meet the complex challenges of the industry in terms of fuel economy, customization, safety requirements and reduced investment as model proliferation continues throughout the industry. 3D printing is now holistic in its approach and no longer limited to just prototyping as it is being used across the spectrum of automotive manufacturing – from prototyping to production tooling and to end-use parts.
AI: The automotive industry has been one of the early adopters of 3D printing. How do you see the technology developing? Vurpillat: What additive and 3D printing allow for is the creative freedom of designers and engineers to be unleashed. No longer are they constrained by 2D methods and rules and the limits of traditional tooling. Today, many OEMs and suppliers are simply looking at a part-to-part comparison. But, when you optimize the design for 3D printing, you can achieve even greater benefits. For instance, designers are able to create parts that are structurally optimized and lighter when you match 3D printing with computer-based analysis such as topological optimization. These organic-looking and lattice-like structures were virtually impossible to machine. Using additive manufacturing they’re now possible.
AI: How do success stories like Opel’s slashing of manufacturing tool production by 90% change the way additive manufacturing is viewed by traditional OEMs?
Vurpillat: Obviously when you work with a brand like Opel and a company like General Motors the industry notices, and it drives inquiries from other companies on how they can see the same type of results. But, what we really see as the benefit is the further adoption of additive manufacturing throughout the value chain for that particular company. We spend a significant amount of time with our customers walking the assembly line to understand and identify processes and applications that would benefit from additive, and once an OEM or supplier has success in one area, they become advocates and want to drive it through other parts of the business.
AI: What are some of the key applications that are contributing to the growth and adoption of additive processes?
Vurpillat: One application we are seeing driving growth is in the area of manufacturing tooling. Specifically, jigs and fixtures. When you replace conventionally-manufactured jigs and fixtures with additively-manufactured ones they reduce your fabrication and labor costs, while at the same time speeding time to delivery. But, what often gets overlooked is the improvements in operator ergonomics from weight reduction of the fixture plus the added benefit of the reduction in cycle times. Another benefit of printing tooling is the ability for virtual inventory. Depending on the specific application, tools can be printed on-demand, eliminating the need to inventory and house spare tools. If the tool is broken or lost, a new one is called up from the CAD file and printed.
AI: How important is customization of vehicles for the consumers, and how does 3D printing technology help OEMs provide this feature?
Vurpillat: Clearly, one of the major trends in the industry is personalization/customization. But, in reality, this differentiation the easiest to achieve because it tends to be a low-volume scenario which drives high piece cost and tooling investment. But this is the perfect fit for additive manufacturing. We recently worked with Japanese OEM on a low volume, customized part program that wouldn’t have been possible using conventional manufacturing methods. We worked directly with their design team to create 12 different exterior “Effect Skins” for the front and rear fascias for one of their models. The “Effect Skins” can be ordered directly by the customer and then installed at retail, giving the customer a unique personalized vehicle. The best part of this program is the OEM doesn’t have to tool-up for 12 unique skins or forecast volumes. They will simply print on-demand.
AI: How have advances in material technologies helped additive manufacturing become more mainstream?
Vurpillat: Material advances are certainly playing a part in wider adoption across the industry. As the industry tries to lightweight vehicles to meet regulatory requirements they are also attempting to make vehicles safer and more structurally sound. These challenges drive our material development and broaden our applications. One great example is the development of ULTEM 1010 resin, which is an aerospace thermoplastic that we are using to make composite layup tools. By using this technique tooling costs are drastically reduced and make the use of carbon-fiber parts more attractive from a business case standpoint.
Our earlier development of “soluble cores” (better known now as sacrificial mandrels/tooling) enable auto manufacturers and suppliers to make complex hollow composite shapes that were previously very difficult and time-consuming – if not impossible – to make. These shapes can be achieved as one-piece designs, providing an optimized surface finish, geometry and strength, avoiding the need for seamed structures made from clamshell tooling