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In the span of a decade, 3D printers have moved from an optional piece of equipment for producing relatively simple prototypes to an absolute necessity — one that is transforming the automotive industry in fundamental ways.
Now fixtures in automotive design studios, factory assembly lines and test tracks, 3D printers are creating complex parts, speeding up tooling cycles, enhancing measurement, and testing, and providing customization solutions across all aspects of the vehicle development process
ISO/ASTM 52900, created in 2015 to standardize the terminology around 3D Printing, defines it as ‘the process of joining materials to make parts from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing and formative manufacturing methodologies’.
In layman’s terms, it is a new way of manufacturing things that is quite different from how things have ‘traditionally’ been made. It is typically extremely fast, with low fixed setup costs, and can create much more complex geometries than were previously possible, with an ever-expanding list of materials.
It has been used extensively in the engineering industry, particularly for prototyping and creating lightweight geometries, as well as in medicine, education, architecture, and entertainment. 3D printing is commonly associated with maker culture, hobbyists and amateurs, small desktop printers, cheap printing technologies like FDM, and low-cost materials such as ABS and PLA.
The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced cross-section of the object.
As the Global automotive industry moves away from the internal combustion engines toward electric vehicles, 3D printing rises as a solution that can speed up development and radically change the way we look at the design of car components.
Reducing weight has long been a goal in vehicles powered by combustion engines to aid in decreasing fuel consumption and emissions. In electric vehicles, reduced weight still plays a role in lowering energy consumption and thus increasing driving range with a given battery. But there is another consideration. As of 2020, several EV projects are using 3D printing in development and production.
The automotive industry was one of the very first adopters of 3D printing for rapid prototyping. Now, automakers have identified indirect (e.g. moulds) and direct part production as the ultimate value proposition for AM. This shift in focus reveals one exciting trend: automotive and 3D printing OEMs are heading down the road to digital mass production.
This progress is mostly driven by hardware evolution and increased process automation. For example, metal binder jetting is emerging from the shadows as a viable production technology. It offers a faster printing speed, compared to other metal AM processes, which is a particular boon for automakers.
In terms of automation, car manufacturers are looking for ways to streamline stages of the AM workflows. This involves, for example, incorporation of design tools to automate DfAM (Design for Additive Manufacturing), MES software to establish workflow control and traceability, as well as the integration of automated post-processing hardware.
The Global Automotive 3D Printing Market can be segmented into following categories for further analysis.
Companies and research institutions, alike, are working hard to translate 3D printing into industrialized, highly automated production processes for car manufacturing. Increased collaboration is particularly evident in the number of projects launched recently.
As the world enters a new era of connected vehicles, the number of electronic devices, like sensors and antennae within the vehicle, is increasing. With this increase comes a greater need for designing and producing smaller, more complex electronics.
The advancements in AM systems for electronics unlock the opportunity to embed these sensors directly into mechanical components and the structure of vehicles. This approach can lead to higher reliability and longer lifetime compared to conventionally assembled sensors.
Within each type of process, there are unique technologies, and for every unique technology, there are also many different brands selling similar printers. The most common 3D printing processes are vat photopolymerization (specifically SLA technology), material extrusion (usually called FDM), and powder bed fusion (specifically SLS technology).
The Global Automotive 3D Printing Market Industry has started seeing considerable development in terms of implementing better requirements of sustainable designing. For the past few decades, 3D printing in the automotive industry was primarily used by carmakers to create automotive prototypes to check their form and fit.
High detail, smooth and accurate 3D printed scale models are very often used in the automotive industry to demonstrate designs and concepts of new vehicles. Like in many other industries, prototyping is an especially important part of the manufacturing process in the automotive sector.
Porsche has recently introduced a new concept for sports car seating that leverages 3D printing and lattice design. The new seats feature polyurethane 3D-printed central seat and backrest cushion sections, which can be customized by three firmness levels: hard, medium, and soft.
With its personalized seating, the German automaker is taking cues from the motorsport sector, where customized driver-specific seat fitting is a norm. Porsche plans to 3D print 40 prototype seats for use on European race tracks as early as May 2020, with customer feedback being used to develop the final street-legal models for mid-2021.
The 2022 manual transmission models of this Cadillac will be GM’s first vehicles to use production 3D printing at scale. The cars will feature two 3D printed nylon HVAC ducts, made via Multi Jet Fusion; an aluminum bracket made with powder bed fusion; and a stainless-steel medallion on the shift knob made through binder jetting.
The RD Limited racing team’s 2021 Dakar Rally off-road racing vehicle includes a customized gear lever and three brake pedals 3D printed from titanium. The powder bed fusion technology used also enabled the team to create a better design for the car’s exhaust ball joint, a component prone to breakage. While only a few pieces were needed for the car, these parts potentially point the way for other future use cases of 3D printing in higher volume applications.
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