It has been estimated that the global 3D printing in automotive industry will generate a combined $1.1 billion by 2019. For a section of the industry that has invoked both some of the most exciting stories from an engineering point of view and also plenty of consumer-fodder branded scepticism, it’s undoubtedly one of the most interesting areas 3D printing has touched.
Leading names in the automotive industry such as Formula 1, Lamborghini and Honda have been applying additive manufacturing methods for almost three decades. As one of 3D printing’s earliest adopters, the technology has helped manufacturers reduce cycle times for new parts and design iterations but more recently, concept models have demonstrated the possibilities of the technology to go beyond prototyping towards the production of final, durable parts.
Last year, Phoenix-based, Local Motors grabbed mainstream attention when the world’s first 3D printed vehicle was successfully printed in just 44 hours and driven off the show floor of the International Manufacturing Technology Show. Manufactured in collaboration with Cincinnati Incorporated and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Strati was created with BAAM (big area additive manufacturing) in ABS plastic and reinforced with carbon fibre. Though it may not look like a typical road-worthy car, the Strati is on track to go on sale to the general public, with plans to reduce the print process to just 24 hours and receive clearance by the U.S. vehicle rules and regulations to get it on the road by 2016. Theoretically, you could see a 3D printed car driving alongside you in the space of a year and that’s a phenomenal cue for the promise of additive manufacturing in producing real functional parts.
Another world first?
Last month, an automotive story surfaced that divided the 3D printing community with news of the self-proclaimed “world’s first 3D printed supercar”, the Blade. Designed and built by Divergent Microfactories (DM), the vehicle is a super sleek model and in terms of aesthetic appeal, is light-years away from the Strati. However, the legitimacy of the Blade has of course been questioned with petrol heads and 3D sceptics quick to ask the obvious – “Is it all 3D printed?” Despite the initial dubious reaction, speaking with CEO Kevin Czinger, it seems there are some worthwhile fundamental concepts behind the vehicle.
“The objective is to have the licensing of our manufacturing technology catalyse an explosion of innovation by small teams that will design and build environmentally beautiful, cool, fun and affordable cars. Our engineering prototype, the Blade, starts us off in that direction - cool design, super performance, radical reduction of material, a chassis structure comprised of 41 pounds of carbon fibre and 61 pounds of 3D printed aluminium, and 1/3 the life-cycle emissions of a traditionally manufactured.”
In the 3D community, it’s always good to be wary of any “world’s first” labels and that’s where the general consensus have had their backs up about the Blade. The car is faster than a McClaren P1 supercar and has double the power-to-weight ratio of a Bugatti Veyron – that’s pretty impressive on it’s own. The reality of its 3D printing credentials however are in the underlying structure of the car. The chassis design and also the manufacturing process have utilised 3D printing whereas the remaining elements of the car have been achieved with conventional processes. So does that really warrant the title of “world’s first supercar’?
“Our objective is to flip that script by using new technologies to dematerialise car manufacturing - radically reducing the material and energy that go into designing and building cars,” Kevin explained. “So we've focused on the chassis design and manufacturing process, not the other elements of the car. We are using 3D metal printing to create the underlying structure of the car, not just the components that attach to it. To us, that is the core disruptive use of 3D metal printing in the auto industry.”
DM uses a node process to manufacture its parts. Rather than applying large sheets of metal or tubing and welding them together, they have created standardised modular structures using 3D printed aluminium nodes to connect carbon fibre tubing and sheer panels. The result is less material, energy and reduced costs by eliminating the need for costly tooling changes or stamping machines.
Bringing manufacturing closer to home is a key advantage of additive manufacturing and DM is invested in changing the fundamental characteristics of the car industry through localised manufacturing. In the spirit of going green, we now have cleaner cars that have been designed consciously to reduce emissions. Whilst we may see a few more electric car charging points popping up in public spaces, DM believes the real issue is in the way vehicles are manufactured.
“Factories can cost billions of dollars and once built the focus is on capacity utilisation - how many cookie cutter cars can be manufactured from the same dies and stamping equipment,” Kevin commented.
What they’re aiming for is a “renaissance in car manufacturing”. Putting production in the hands of teams around the world, DM is keen to provide people with the tools to set up a microfactories in their local area that have the potential to save on space, energy, materials and time. The company says these factories could have the capacity to produce up to 10,000 cars per year for production factories.
“If we radically reduce capital cost, we can significantly increase innovation and make design and building of a very important product, cars, much more accessible to smaller and more dynamic teams,” Kevin added. “We think that's a good thing for the world.”
Local Motors is also heavily focussed on the idea of localised manufacturing– it’s in the name after all – and currently holds three U.S. Microfactory locations in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Crystal City. Over the next 10 years, the company plans to open 100 Microfactories around the globe to bring together the worldwide Local Motors community and facilitate the creation of new vehicles based on local needs.
Growing parts for automotive
Earlier this year, the name Carbon 3D arrived on the scene and introduced the world to what is possibly the fastest 3D printer the industry has yet seen. Working in stealth mode to develop the technology, the Terminator-inspired CLIP 3D printing method is capable of creating parts up to 100 times faster than current 3D printing methods without layers and has sparked the imagination of some big-name early adopters.
One of those is Ford Motor Company who entered Carbon 3D’s early access programme to look at whether the technology could help them realise their ambitions to use 3D printing as a manufacturing technology. The 100 year old automotive giant has already been utilising 3D printing for nearly 30 years and Ellen Lee, Team Lead in Additive Manufacturing Research at Ford, says it has radically changed their manufacturing process. In the last year, Ford has put together a research programme dedicated to looking at technologies and new materials that could enable them to use additive technologies in production parts.
Carbon 3D CLIP technology used by Ford to 3D print automotive parts.
Initially attracted to the speed of the technology and its ability to “grow” parts rather than layer them, the team began working with Carbon 3D to find out what material properties and possibilities it could provide for durable, functional parts.
“In automotive applications most people keep their cars at least 10 years, all of the parts go through really huge temperate cycles,” Ellen explained. “All the parts need to function in that range of temperatures for 10 years or more so to be able to develop a material that can be printed and printed quickly with good properties is a real big challenge.”
In addition to reducing cycle times, the usual positives of additive such as designing lightweight structures, cutting costs and material use, there’s the added promise of customisation. Though we might not be at the point of printing a car from our own garage, Ellen feels there are some significant parallels in the maker space and automotive industry in being able to create custom parts for a car.
“A lot of things we do certain ways because that’s what our processes allow us to do. If we think outside the box, there may be many more efficient ways to do things and that’s what we’re really trying to look for,” Ellen commented. “I think consumers will be interested in is being able to personalise or customise a vehicle. That’s a big selling point for additive manufacturing. You see it today already in the maker space - people are customising everything so I think that’s what customers are really interested in.”
Currently Ford is concentrating on smaller parts and looking at what it can achieve with resolution and surface finish. Of course there is still a long way to go before additive can be in a position to replace conventional methods such as the time tested injection moulding but Ford’s AM team is keen to looking at the possibilities of where it fits in to the entire production process. The team are even looking towards Carbon 3D to eventually make a bigger printer capable of printing large car parts.
“Right now we’re looking at what we can do to bridge that gap,” Ellen continued. “Maybe we’ll never compete one to one but we can do things with additive manufacturing that we can design for that we can’t build any other way. So we’re looking at a lot of those concepts, for example tooling is one but at the same time we’re concentrating on the development of new materials and material performance.”
It seems as though Ford is looking to use 3D printing in areas other than production with the creation of the Ford 3D Store. Following the recent launch of its range of 3D printable versions of favourite Ford models such as the Focus ST and Ford GT, it’s clear the interest from the consumer end is pushing the automotive stalwart to think outside of the box about how it can utilise 3D technology to address not only its industrial manufacturing processes but also the commercial side of the market. Perhaps in the future the manufacturer will extend this platform to offer parts and accessories that users will be able to customise and purchase on demand. For now the idea of custom trims and spoilers for might be something that’s reserved for the luxury market.
Hypercar or just hype?
Now from supercars to model cars to hypercars, Swedish hypercar manufacturer, Koenigsegg, recently installed Stratasys Dimension SST 1200es 3D printer to accelerate the in-house production of its record-breaking vehicle. Made up of more than 300 carbon fibre parts, these cars require a hugely labour intensive manufacturing and assembly process but 3D printing has allowed the manufacturer to create tooling, fixtures and some functional end used parts with better speed and precision than ever before.
“It not only allows us to modify and print prototypes quickly but also provides us with the option to use them as end use parts in our cars,” explaind Christian von Koenigsegg, founder and CEO at Koenigsegg Automotive AB. “Once the Dimension printer was up and running, our engineers started using the machine straight away. The benefits were clear immediately. The process of printing prototypes onsite and testing each component has sped up the development of the car design by an estimated 20%.”
For Koenigsegg, performance is at the heart of its workflow, be that materials, software, tools or vehicle performance. Koenigsegg was no newbie to 3D printing and the manufacturer previously outsourced its additive manufactured parts to a service bureau. However, this created a somewhat stunted design process and now with their in-house AM capabilities, every member of the team has access to the 3D printer creating a better, seamless workflow. The results of this can be found in Koenigsegg’s latest model, the Agera, which benefited greatly from a faster and more creative design process.
“The turnaround time for getting a component right in terms of design has decreased enormously, it now only takes a few days instead of a number of weeks,” Christian added. “Our designers and engineers can quickly establish a part’s suitability for the supercar without stifling their creative flow.”
Though we might not actually have a complete 3D printed supercar just yet, the key pieces are there to show that it isn’t such a fantastical goal. Additive manufacturing has already made such a huge impact on the way we manufacture vehicles and parts that it has solidified itself as a valuable link in the automotive development chain – so ingrained that many OEMs couldn’t operate without it.
Right now its key role is still very much in the prototyping phase and in order to push that forward, more research into material properties is needed to ensure the durability of 3D printed parts for use in intense environmental conditions.
Ford’s work with Carbon 3D demonstrates the primary factors car manufacturers are interested in in terms of producing final parts additively – speed, materials and size. Developments are happening on all of these fronts and though they might not be everything they’re made out to be in flashy headlines, these world firsts and supercars are providing a platform to showcase how far these developments have come along. Perhaps the current goal shouldn’t be about racing ahead to see if we can replace all traditional processes, just to see if we can, but rather to find out where additive holds the most value in the automotive industry be it customisation, greener manufacturing or just perhaps that ultimate genuine “world’s first”.