Additive manufacturing, 3D printing, rapid prototyping—whatever you call it, the one layer at a time, bottoms-up building of parts is all the rage in manufacturing today. Product designers use it to quickly print show and tell models of their latest eureka moments, engineers use it to create fit, form, and function test models, while shops of many types use it to make bridge tooling and assembly fixtures, or for low-volume production of end-use parts until their suppliers can ramp up.
Carmakers are no exception. Automotive World reported recently that Chrysler, GM, Mitsubishi and others use additive for a variety of manufacturing and design activities. The leader of the prototyping pack—Ford Motor Company—has five additive manufacturing centers worldwide; its Dearborn Heights facility alone builds roughly 20,000 prototype parts per year. And research firm Gartner Inc. reports that automakers BMW and Opel are currently using 3D-printed tools on their assembly lines, and predict that 75 percent of all manufacturers globally will use printed jigs, fixtures, and other tooling on their factory floors by 2020.
There’s one problem, however. Designing parts that leverage 3D-printing’s capabilities is far different than designing ones that will be stamped, machined, injection molded, or produced with any of the other traditional manufacturing processes. Patrick Michel, vice president of Dassault Systèmes’ DELMIA brand of global industrial operations software notes that design applications such as CATIA are fully capable of modeling whatever designs come their way, but those sitting behind the keyboard might then look at their shiny new brainchild and say, ‘Now what? Should I print it hollow or filled? Can I combine different materials, and if so, which ones are suitable for 3D printing? What about the product quality and integrity of 3D-printed parts?’ There is a lot of work that goes beyond drawing the 3D model itself, Michel says, and a lot of questions about the process. “We are just at the beginning of the additive manufacturing story.”
Testing the Waters
SAE International agrees. In an article published in mid 2016, scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratories’ Deposition Science and Technology Group (DSaT) said standards development for 3D printing remains a work in progress, although it does enjoy broad support from a variety of organizations. But the biggest obstacle to 3D printing’s widespread adoption might be the mindset of the manufacturing industry, which grapples with how to qualify and certify printed materials and parts.
DSaT’s mission is the “research and development on the processing of metal and ceramic materials for both structural and functional applications.” This includes the development of 3D printing techniques, exploring new materials and seeking ways to improve process efficiency. One example of this is BAAM, or Big Area Additive Manufacturing, a large scale 3D printing machine developed in collaboration with machine tool builder Cincinnati Inc. Compared to most commercial 3D printers, which deposit relatively small amounts of material at a rate of an inch or so per hour (depending on part size), BAAM deposits upwards of 100 lb (45 kg) of polymer per hour and has a build volume larger than a Smart car. Need to print a complete vehicle chassis? It might soon be feasible.
For now, at least, 3D printing’s biggest contribution to the automotive market will continue to be in composites tooling and spare parts production. The owner of a vintage 1932 De Soto, for example, may soon be able to order a 3D-printed fender for his or her 4-door sedan and have it delivered the next day. Seem far-fetched? Daimler AG announced last summer it is restructuring much of its supply chain in favor of 3D printed replacement parts.
A World of Makers
The implications of this are not lost on Dassault Systèmes. As a charter member of IACMI, The Composites Institute, Dassault Systèmes’ robust suite of Additive Manufacturing tools will help lead the crusade to ensure printed vehicles will be built as designed and meet all the vehicle safety requirements. The company has also recently partnered with additive manufacturing pioneer Stratasys, their stated goal to provide “next generation design tools that improve the functionality, efficiency and weight ratio” of parts that are produced through additive manufacturing.” It also announced expansion of its 3DEXPERIENCE platform with the addition of a FabLab additive manufacturing center at its North American headquarters. Together with support for 3D printing software tools such as XtreeE, native export to 3D printers from SOLIDWORKS and CATIA, and Sculpteo on-demand printing of CAD models through the company’s 3Dvia.com website, Dassault Systèmes is clearly onboard the 3D printing Express.
What does all this mean to auto designers and manufacturers? Plenty. It’s clear that additive manufacturing provides automakers with endless opportunities for faster development cycles and testing of bold new product designs. The majority of these will make cars lighter and more fuel efficient, but should also have the added benefit of making them stronger, safer, and (hopefully) easier on the pocketbook. And while high-volume part production remains far beyond the current capabilities of even the largest and most capable 3D printers (even BAAM), this new kid on the manufacturing block, with its ability to print virtually any shape imaginable in hours, is poised to turn the automotive industry on its head. Simply put, it’s a really cool time to be making cars.