How is 3D Printing Affecting the Auto Industry?
Recent studies have concluded revenue in the 3D printing the automotive industry will hit multi-billion-dollar figures within a couple years.
However, there are many skeptics saying the 3D printing of cars is not financially viable and just hype. Critics also point to the low speed of additive manufacturing, which is a major drawback for its use in the automotive industry.
While additive manufacturing is known for its slow pace, the technology behind these systems are advancing rapidly. In December 2014, Ford began evaluating a pre-released version of the continuous liquid interface production (CLIP) system from Carbon 3D that permits light and oxygen to pass through a vat container, assisting the solidification sequence while shrinking build times. Citing this approach, Carbon 3D has said it can print 25 to 100 times more rapidly than typical 3D printing techniques.
While early adopters realized that 3D printing is useful for small, intricate parts, the automotive industry is beginning to find many more new uses. For instance, the production of something as basic as a door grommet can be vastly improved with 3D printing. Using the Carbon 3D system, Ford made door grommets in one-third the time and the material qualities were very close to ideal.
One of the biggest impacts of 3D printing on the auto industry can be seen in prototyping.
According to a report from SmarTech, 3D prototyping is only about 15 percent to 20 percent of automotive prototyping, as the technology is most valuable for low-volume operations.
However, major auto manufacturers are increasingly making forays into 3D prototyping. In fact, Ford has been using additive manufacturing to make prototypes for more than 20 years to cut design time. Recently, Ford joined other auto makers have been investing in additive manufacturing as a potential means of mass production.
Prototyping and parts production aren't the only areas in the auto industry being affected by 3D printing. Many businesses are embracing the technology to produce lightweight, ergonomic tools. This strategy has been shown to result in a decrease in lead-time by 40 to 90 percent, while reducing costs as much as 60 percent. The usage of additive manufacturing for tooling also saves time for design teams because they can be more reactive with the capability to generate one-off customized items.
Lighter, more ergonomic tools can also raise repeatability, and help the automotive industry better manage additional regulatory requirements. About two decades ago, the roof-strength prerequisite to withstand rollover crush was approximately the weight of the vehicle. Today, rollover strength is approximately four times the gross vehicle weight. Improving the maximum strength with minimal material is achievable with a system known as topographical optimization (TO), which is found in several CAD packages. TO is nearly impossible to manufacture with traditional techniques, but 3D printing has the potential to deal with intricate geometries in a low-waste process with lightweight raw materials.
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