Additive manufacturing and the automotive industry have formed quite a partnership. From prototyping to racing cars to keeping businesses afloat despite supply chain issues, the relationship is only set to grow.
A 2019 report from SmartTech Analysis projects that the automotive additive manufacturing market will be worth over $12 billion by 2028, which would be a drastic increase from $1 billion in 2017.
Admittedly, this estimate was released just before the coronavirus pandemic hit countless businesses and industries. According to Scott Dunham, executive director of research at SmartTech Analysis, the short-term impacts were much more pronounced.
Sales of 3D printing equipment have been significantly reduced, but in the second half of 2020 and throughout 2021 the industry has seen a rebound.
The long-term outlook was not affected much by what was seen in the 2019 report, nor was the forecast. Given that the pandemic has propelled the trends of digital manufacturing and supply chain flexibility to the fore, the predictions might even be stronger.
“The automotive industry, at the time of this report’s publication, its use of 3D printing had increased in a direction where there were more exploratory projects,” Dunham said. “Industry use of 3D printing at that time had declined slightly. It was the rapid prototyping side of things where a lot of the technology had been rooted historically. It was mainly automotive industry trends; not so much a commentary on technology.
Eventually, automakers will seek higher-volume end-use direct production applications, if possible. This leads 3D printing companies to enter the scene to meet potential requirements.
For now, OEMs are choosing what Dunham calls “pet projects” to use 3D printing.
“It’s as if they were choosing [a project] specifically for AM because it’s a vehicle that makes sense in today’s field of AM technology. It’s something that’s pushing the brand, but it’s not going to sell huge units.
An example of a favorite project was covered by Michael Molitch-Hou, editor of 3DPrinting.com. This involves Ford releasing CAD files that allow 2022 Maverick owners to 3D print custom components for the pickup.
Molitch-Hou described it as something that should have happened in 2015, but explained how it could lead to further development.
“At the same time, 3D printing technology and the industry itself have advanced to the point where we should see end pieces in vehicles any day now,” Molitch-Hou said. . “Ford itself claims by 2023; there are going to be 3D printed metal parts in a popular sedan. I feel like this Maverick story isn’t very telling of where Ford is or where the market is going, but it still feels like a pilot project and they’re going to see if it takes hold.
Implementing a small 3D printed contribution in the automotive industry is nothing new. One of the most striking examples is the place of 3D printing in motor racing. As Molitch-Hou explains, 3D printing is useful for unique and complex parts that would prove too expensive to manufacture with traditional manufacturing methods.
For example, in 2015, BMW announced that its 500th water pump impeller would be 3D printed and mounted on car powertrains. The first was in 2010, when BMW used Selective Laser Melting (SLM) technology to manufacture a one-piece lightweight metal water pump impeller. It replaced the multi-piece water pump impellers, which were assembled with plastic parts in their German Touring Car Masters (DTM) racing vehicles.
“Auto racing has proven to be a great use case for 3D printing,” Molitch-Hou said. “It’s similar to other fields like rockets where it’s expensive and you just do one. Nowadays the most cost-effective way to create a design is usually 3D printing. This has led to Many 3D printing manufacturers to partner with F1 teams, so they have some deals going on.It seems partly promotional and partly practical.
As 3D printing has evolved, several contributions have been introduced to the industry. Dunham and Molitch-Hou believe the most notable contributions are the invention of printed sand casting molds and cores and metal binder jetting, respectively.
In the case of sand casting molds and cores, technologies are used by companies like ExOne, which is owned by Desktop Metal, or Voxeljet. These companies make printers that can print cores and shapes that can then be used in a traditional molding process to make metal parts. Essentially, this is to print the tooling used in the normal process.
“That may not be true in the future if we move to more mass production via additives,” Dunham said of the use of sand casting molds and cores. “But I suspect it will still be around for a long time because I think overall it’s not just massive scaling. It’s more about gradual growth and progressive.
Molitch-Hou described metal binder jetting as “an old technology but also a new one” and added that automakers such as Ford and Volkswagen will use it to 3D print metal parts.
According to ExOne, binder jetting is “an additive manufacturing process in which an industrial printhead selectively deposits a liquid binder onto a thin layer of powder particles to create unique, high-value parts and tools.”
“If we’re moving into mass production with 3D printing, it looks like [binder jetting] is going to be the process in which they try to mass-produce final pieces,” Molitch-Hou said.
Other hardware 3D printing companies, such as HP’s multi-jet fusion and Carbon’s digital light synthesis, focus on auto parts production.
Dunham said he was impressed with the lack of product release delays during the pandemic and included metal powder bed fusion as a way to achieve high-volume production processes.
“One of the things that powder bed fusion companies have been trying to solve and continually reduce is cost per part. As more and more lasers are added to systems, throughput can increase. The cost of the machine goes up, but the cost per part, which is what automotive cares about, goes down Now we have powder bed fusion manufacturers with eight to 12 lasers in a system where historically people said you could never control four at once in one machine,” Dunham said.
SmartTech’s report ends in 2028 with an automotive additive manufacturing market totaling north of $12 billion. He predicts that the production of parts passing prototyping, tooling, equipment and materials will become the main revenue opportunity.
In 2028, Dunham is planning a structure similar to today with a significant amount of prototyping and factory support. However, he also sees high-end models that are 50% 3D printed and, perhaps, a more significant influence on the mainstream automotive sector.
“If the binder jetting project can take off a little more than it is today, we will start to see, in six years, perhaps the first breakthrough in consumer automotive with 3D printing. . They will probably be small metal parts at first.