During the past year, we’ve seen several successful test cases leading to a significant increase in the adoption of 3D printing for production of aircraft and aerospace parts. Today’s MINI Yours Customised announcement from British-German automaker MINI, coupled with other underlying trends in mobility that have emerged in recent months, indicate that 2018 will likely be the year in which the automotive industry will begin mass adoption of 3D printing for production. Additive manufacturing mass production technologies are ready both in terms of speeds and surface quality. Digital material properties – both for metal and polymer/composites – are now up to par for end-use parts, costs are rapidly dropping and industry awareness is high. The benefits of automotive 3D printing have been largely established and the race is on.
MINI Drives Customization
The MINI Yours Customised service is groundbreaking for several reasons. The first is that it is not a test and it is not a gimmick as several other simlar attempts have been in the past. This is a true mass customization service targeted at BMW’s most customizable range of vehicles. The company has already fine-tuned a digital design and production workflow which starts with the customer and seamlessly moves through additive manufacturing facilities built through a strategic partnership with HP, Carbon and EOS. MINI Customers can select, design and order the upgrade parts available in the product range of MINI Yours Customised at the new Online Shop specially developed for the new package.
This is the first time that 3D printer manufacturers have been in a position to supply the particularly high-grade plastic qualities selected for the MINI Yours Customised programme. This means that MINI Yours Customised products are in conformity with the same high standards of form, functionality and safety as the components supplied from the factory in the original MINI range of accessories. The difference is that each accessory is individually designed to match the user’s own creativity and style.
“When the personal designs are produced, the user is guided through the individual operating stages as they create their personal design and they are able to give free rein to their creativity within this framework. For example, the side scuttles and the trims can be designed with colors, surface finishes and patterns in any sequence. Finishes and patterns are variable in scale and can be scaled to meet the users’ requirements. The user is also provided with a list of design worlds from which thematically tailored colors and specific icons can be selected.”
Daimler racing ahead with automation
While MINI is serious about customization – which likely is going to be a major driver in the early age of automotive 3D printing for end-use part production – the other German automotive powerhouse Daimler Group (which include Mercedes Benz) has been working on actual part production in both plastic and metal. Choosing a different approach, the company first acquired a large format SLS 3D printer from RICOH in March. In spite of a high system cost, the RICOH system has a particularly large build volume and was the first to offer the ability to 3D print by SLS technology using polypropylene, which is a more affordable material compared to the commonly used polyamides, while offering good mechanical performances.
In April Daimler announced it would be using automotive 3D printing technology to produce on-demand interior parts for its Daimler Buses division. By that time some 780 components had already been 3D printed for customer vehicles. In addition, more than 150 different replacement parts for buses were being scrutinized and validated with regard to their feasibility as 3D printed parts. The company clearly stated that:
“3D printing provides the bus division within the Daimler Group with a means of responding swiftly, flexibly, economically and ecologically to individual customer requests and requirements for replacement parts. In top quality and with low production costs: the 3D parts correspond to the injection moulding standards stipulated by Daimler AG, while avoiding the costs relating to tool production, component storage and the disposal of surplus materials.”
Daimler has been looking at automotive 3D printing for plastics and it has also taken a serious interest in metals, through the high profile NextGenAM program it undersigned together with Premium Aerotec and EOS. In metals, there are different challenges to face in order to make the technology viable for automotive production. While the primary challenge for polymers is material quality, 3D printed metal parts already present the same or even better material quality than traditionally manufactured parts. In metals, the biggest challenge is speed. Not just the 3D printing speed but process speed.
The speed for 3D printing metals can only be increased so much. Newer systems introduced more powerful lasers and even more lasers working concurrently, however, this is only part of the equation. Other bottlenecks during the 3D printing phase include part (and layer) cooling as well as accurate process monitoring (to ensure each part is 3D printed correctly). The main concerns, however, are in the pre and post process phases, where 3D printers still need to be fully integrated into a complete workflow and where a much higher degree of automation is necessary. Automated systems need to be handle material supply and removal, they need to automatically move parts between stations, measure them and then remove supports and proceed to finishing them through integrated subtractive systems.
The objective of NextGenAM is to progress the automation of the entire industrial automotive 3D printing process. The project team set out to check the entire additive manufacturing process to see whether parts of it can be automated, from the delivery of metal powder to the processing stages after the build process itself. By this measure, the partners hoped to gain significant cost advantages and important foundations in order to use this technology for large-scale serial manufacturing in the future. The process stages before and after the actual manufacturing process constitute around 70 percent of the manufacturing costs. In addition to advanced system technology, the project also strives for a qualification of aluminum for use in industrial 3D printing.
Ford, Fiat, Local Motors Making Moves
During the last IN3DUSTRY congress in Barcelona, 3DPMN had the opportunity to speak with other automotive leaders about their use of 3D printing. Innovation is coming both from the top and the bottom. On the one hand, the people working with AM at Fiat Chrysler Automobile (FCA) revealed how their main goal is to develop SLS materials that can provide adequate part quality. The group’s design division is also working to fully exploit optmized design for additive manufacturing in order to contain costs since its main customer target is not luxury vehicles but mass-produced cars with accessible costs. On the other hand, US-startup Local Motors is now facing the challenge of scaling up its 3D printed car business globally, with overwhelming requests of its largely 3D printed, highly customizable self-driving vehicle OLLI.
Also in 2017, Ford Motor Company began testing the Stratasys Infinite Builder 3D printer for large-scale car parts. Ford is the first auto company to trial this technology with Stratasys (Boeing is testing it for aerospace parts) and is using it to explore potential applications for future production vehicles, including Ford Performance products, as well as personalized car parts. The company believes that as it becomes increasingly affordable and efficient, 3D printing of large automotive parts, like spoilers, could benefit both its business by better meeting evolving customers’ demands, both in terms of mass-customization and improved performances.
Metal Binder Jetting Enters the Race
Last but not least, the revival of metal binder jetting technologies could provide a very important low-cost alternative to metal automotive 3D printing. Funded by BMW iVentures and Stratasys among others, Desktop Metal is the company that more than any other to date has targeted automotive production for its low-cost, high-speed Production System.
While parts do require furnace firing after printing, the key advantage of binder jetting systems is that they can 3D print parts with infinite geometric possibilities at very high speeds using very affordable MIM (metal injection molding) powders. This opens up the technology to a much wider selection of materials and a much wider range of mass production applications. Desktop Metal’s approach has been further validated by GE‘s and HP‘s recent announcements that both companies are developing their own metal binder jetting technologies, both likely due to enter the market sometime in 2018.
This is no longer a test, nor a gimmick: automotive 3D printing is coming to a factory near you in 2018.