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 use 3D printers to create complex parts, speed up tooling cycles, enhance measurement and to test and provide customised solutions across all aspects of the vehicle development process. Whether using Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM®) to create new tooling for short-run testing or production parts, customising vehicle interiors or making measurement and production devices, such as, jigs, the automotive industry is increasingly turning to 3D printing to manage tight production cycles and cut costs.
Christoph Lindner, Territory Manager—GSC, Stratasys, has been with the company since 2012, but even in that relatively brief period of time, he has seen significant changes across the industry. Lindner notes that although OEM customers continue to use 3D printing for rapid prototyping to address a wide range of early-stage design and functional testing needs, the industry is exploring ‘cross-functionality’ parts and applications. With the help of Stratasys experts, OEMs and tier one suppliers are growing in their knowledge of 3D printing applications and the capability of the materials that bring their ideas to the road. Here are five key ways 3D printing is changing the automotive industry, both today and in the near future.
From small to big: Flexible optimised design
One of the key benefits of early-stage vehicle design with the assistance of a 3D printer is the ability to start small and scale up rapidly, well before assessment or the part reaches the assembly line. One example of that capability can be found at Bentley Motors. Nearly every detail of a future production vehicle is first created in miniature using Stratasys PolyJet™ technology. The 3D process empowers designers to test multiple forms and a variety of practical functions, bringing them closer to a final design much more quickly than in the past. The studio uses two machines, the Objet30 ProTM and Objet500 ConnexTM multimaterial 3D Printers, in tandem. Designers rely on the Objet30 to model anything from tiny wheel rims to grilles, and then move to the Objet500 to create one-third scale and even life-size parts. In a single printing session, both multiple clear and opaque materials are seamlessly integrated to craft a scale model without assembly. The PolyJet technology also allows companies to print translucent prototypes.
At Jaguar Land Rover, the Objet500 Connex 3D Printer was tasked with producing a complete fascia air vent assembly for a Range Rover Sport. It used rigid materials for housing and air-deflection blades and rubber-like materials for control knobs and air seal. In a single process, Jaguar Land Rover printed the complete fascia air vent as a working part. Once printed, the model was taken from the printer, cleaned and tested, proving that the hinges on the blades all worked, and the control knob had the right look and feel.
Rapid tooling with Additive Manufacturing
Rapid tooling has become the major focus for many automotive customers, a trend that is only expected to grow in coming years. Engineers can then evaluate the moulds to determine the optimal design before creating a steel version for a final mould. Designing tooling with Additive Manufacturing from the very beginning removes multiple steps and untold costs compared with traditional tooling methods.
A prime example of shrinking the tooling process can be found in the 2011 Lamborghini Aventador, the sports car brand’s flagship model. The $400,000 Aventador clocks in at 230mph and owes many of its performance attributes to its carbon-fibre-reinforced composite monocoque which makes up the core of the integrated body-chassis. It weighs 324.5 pounds, and the entire body and chassis weigh just 505 pounds. A team used a Fortus 3D Printer with a build envelope large enough to produce a one-sixth scale model of the body and chassis in one piece. Complete one-sixth scale prototypes of the body and chassis were created in just two months, including the time to print and assemble the parts.
Under traditional manufacturing processes, it would have taken an estimated four months and $40,000 to build the tooling for the scaled part. But with 3D printing, total build and processing time was 20 days, with a total cost of $3,000 including materials, labour and machine time.
Fast customisation via 3D printing
Customising vehicles, especially when it comes to interiors, is a costly endeavour for automakers. Mass production of a particular automotive featuring in low-volume vehicles often proves too expensive for OEMs to justify. But 3D printing offers an economical solution to carmakers looking to provide an array of trims and options for consumers. For example, Stratasys worked with a German automaker to create a driverfriendly feature in the cabin of the car. This option was available on just 10,000 vehicles — too few units to justify the cost of tooling and injection moulding. However, such a low volume is well within reach of 3D printing technology, both in terms of costs and materials.
Customising interiors, particularly for commercial customers, is another major need that’s being addressed with 3D printing. That includes creating low-volume, specialised instrument panels that add features such as compartments for tools and instruments, as well as flexible dashboard features, such as GPS and satellite navigation systems. And while electric vehicles still represent a low-volume segment, the market is growing rapidly, and 3D printing could play a more prominent role. These vehicles require lightweight, highly specialised components and parts that must be produced in lower quantities — a perfect place for FDM. Lindner noted one of the recent project in which Stratasys worked with a producer of a small commercial electric vehicle (EV); the team produced the tools for thermoforming the roof of the vehicle. When the pieces of the roof were glued together and attached to the vehicle, the lighter roof helped achieve a nearly five percent overall weight reduction. While this is an early-stage project, and some technical obstacles remain, it shows the potential for 3D printing in the growing EV sector.
Validation & advanced measurement on demand
When it comes to measurement and parts assembly, Lindner also sees 3D printing playing an increased role on the factory floor. He provided the example of a tier one supplier that worked with Stratasys engineers to develop a multifunctional tool that can measure several points on a headlight or taillight prior to final assembly in an OEM plant in Germany. “We came up with a triangle-shaped tool that marries three different processes into one tool, and it’s printed with FDM technology,” he said. The tool measures the edges, such as where the rubber connects to a taillight, to validate accuracy of the parts and fixtures. It not only marries three different measurement steps into one, but it also replaces tools made with steel or aluminium that have less functionality, reducing costs by two-thirds at the same time. The FDM-produced tool is light and mobile and can be carried to any station, or anywhere along the assembly line. It can serve as an assistant in the zero-tolerance car process, to assure quality control, and that’s something no one considered before in the measuring process. The tool will be produced by a supplier serving the plant, which produces several hundred thousand of cars per year. Increasingly, Fortus 3D Printers are being used to produce jigs used in the assembly process. When it comes to measurement applications, PolyJet Tango™, a rubber-like material, is used to avoid scratches when measuring door gaps during assembly.
Real world functional testing: Discovering what works
Nearly 10 years ago, experts at Stratasys showed Fiat how to create door and body panels with FDM technology. Managers at the Italian automaker were impressed by how large, yet thin, the panels were, as well as how easily the parts fit together. SLA and SLS technologies cannot produce parts as large without warping but FDM parts hold their shape over time.
Since then, Chrysler Fiat Group has purchased several Fortus 3D Printers, creating parts with even more functionality. One of the most popular thermoplastics, ULTEMTM 9085 resin, a flame-retardant, high-performance thermoplastic, is the go-to material for complex parts that go in the test vehicles, including inside engine compartments. The weight-toperformance ratio is similar to some aluminium alloys used in these applications, and it is resistant to temperatures up to 186oC. Another popular material for automotive parts is ULTEM 1010 resin, which has higher resistance to temperature than ULTEM 9085 resin, as well as increased rigidity, and can withstand temperatures as high as 214oC. But using FDM technology isn’t just a way to confirm what designers believe will work; it can also reveal what isn’t working — well before a part or a whole assembly goes into production. For example, original and aftermarket equipment maker Hyundai Mobis relies on prototyping for design verification and functional testing, using a Fortus FDM system to help evaluate components such as instrument panels. Specifically, Hyundai Mobis produced a prototype instrument panel in ABS plastic for Kia’s Spectra and precisely scanned it with a coordinate measuring machine to ensure accuracy to the original design. However, that original design, mounted as a prototype in a cockpit mock-up and connected to sub-assemblies, containing 27 flaws that would have added cost and time delays, or could have hampered fit and finish.
The automotive industry arguably has never faced more challenges — or very promising opportunities — as it does today. A host of obstacles, from the demand for vehicle electrification to diverse consumer preferences, to tighter environmental regulations, all have contributed to tightened vehicle production schedules and shortened vehicle life cycles. These pressures directly affect every OEM and every supplier throughout the value chain. They require creative approaches to speed up the design process, increase quality and cut costs — all at the same time As a cost-effective solution for improving measurement, functional testing, vehicle customisation, optimised designing and rapid tooling; adopting optimised 3D printing is critical for engineers, plant workers and designers of all kinds. And with new applications being discovered, tested and implemented virtually every day, 3D printing technology’s potential to impact the industry is just beginning.