With a record market cap, Tesla is among the automakers that are best positioned to get through the COVID-19 crisis. The recent – possibly a bit uncalled for – tweets by its exuberant CEO do not seem to be getting in the way of the company’s climb to the top of the automotive world. And the reason is that its technology is – according to experts – six to ten years ahead of competitors (this used to be true for Apple, and look where it got). Tesla is not very open about its use of AM, however in the latest Q1 financial release, the company showed a very large, generatively designed metal part that will go into its new Model Y’s.
The part in question is the Model Y rear underbody, which could go from 70 different parts to just two and eventually, a single piece of metal. Tesla’s factories have been making significant strides in automation. The part in question is likely produced using a new large casting machine that Tesla recently installed. It probably was prototyped using additive manufacturing and, in the future, a hybrid additive-subtractive metal deposition technology may be used as a preferred method to produce a part of this size (it would make very little sense to entirely cut this part from whole) as a single component.*
Recently a Tesla Model Y teardown video had also shown a 3D printed component, a partly 3D printed part in the car’s HVAC system which was likely 3D printed to address an imperfection of original mold and avoid a launch delay.
If confirmed – as it seems to be – the use of 3D printing for sand casts such as that offered by voxeljet and ExOne for to enable the reduction of subassemblies (form 70 to 1) in a custom cast can bring about a significant transition even before metal AM can be used to produce such large metal parts directly. Producing a complex cast that can reduce the number of parts to this degree needs digital casting technology. This would mean that the use of sand 3D printing processes to improve upon the possibilities of the traditional casting industry could become increasingly mainstream as it is able to support high throughput production as required by the automotive segment.
This part, however, is an entirely different ballpark. We are talking about a serially manufactured massive metal part. It also shows evidence of topology optimized generative design, which will likely improve weight and performance significantly and could eventually make the use of AM even more appealing.
The long term implication is that, if the part proves cost-effective – as it very likely will – the same approach will soon be used for a number of other currents and future vehicles, giving Tesla an even greater lead on slow-moving competitors.
Thomas Ulbrich, a Volkswagen board member in charge of the electric vehicle business, said that Tesla “is 10 years ahead of competitors in manufacturing electric vehicles and developing software […] Tesla is an impressive automaker, which is a driving force for us. Tesla has more than 10 years of experience, but we will soon catch up.”
In terms of adopting AM technology, Volkswagen has been quite aggressive in implementing both polymer and metal AM technologies from HP, favoring the use of AM for serial production multiple small components.
*This article was modified to reflect the fact that the part in question was likely manufactured using a new large casting machine and not using a hybrid additive manufacturing method.