3D Printing for Cars

Stampa 3D Automotive

3D Printing for the Automotive Industry

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is a particular production technique that aims to create a three-dimensional object from a digital file using computer-aided design (CAD). As is often the case in these cases, the term encompasses several different processes and techniques that base their development on the deposition and use of one or more materials to construct the object.

In most cases, the materials used refer to plastic, metal, and wax, as well as all the composite materials that can be derived from them. 3D printing is then developed by applying layer after layer of material to create the exact shape within the source file. The feature that most differentiates this technique from others is the presence and monitoring of a computer from start to finish. This makes 3D printing an economical and efficient method that can be fully exploited.

The precision provided by the primary intervention of a computer is the real strength of 3D printing, which offers freedom of action on any geometry or design complexity, speeding up the production process and starting quickly from a concept. Such a technique is now used in every industrial sector to create a myriad of designs, from prototypes to final articles. With the right technology and a design file, everything from tools to components to assemble a larger product can be produced. The goodness of the system lies in the great work done to develop printers, which today differ in size and the amount of work possible.

3D printing and the revolution in the automotive industry

Undeniably, the industrial sector, and especially the automotive manufacturing sector, has benefited enormously from the developments and advantages of this type of printing. In scale production within the automotive industry, 3D printing technology has enormous applications without relying on possible expansionist aims, leading to new, increasingly effective and efficient production concepts every day. This is why, when analysing 3D printing in the automotive sector, it is a good idea to start by distinguishing this production method’s first and most significant advantages. The simplification of the design flow is the first, if not the most important, feature revolutionised by 3D printing. Here, we see a production that eliminates all downtime and achieves everything without significant errors.

This technique surpasses previous production times. Data from studies carried out in the industrial field, especially in the automotive sector, declares a reduction of as much as 15 times the previous speed. Recall that a higher build speed always equals a decrease in unit costs. Secondly, there is the production of more robust and lighter parts. This is only possible, in some cases, through 3D printing.

To drastically reduce weight, the aim is to create parts from different polymers reinforced with metal fibres such as carbon. This does not affect the strength and technical properties of the part produced; instead, it further implements them.

Thirdly, we recall the ability of 3D-printed production for the automotive sector to produce a previously 3D-printed part in one piece. This leads to a twofold reduction in both time-to-market and raw material waste. Through these two variables, it is possible to turn to 3D printing services, achieving shorter production times on the one hand and contributing to a sensible and ecological reduction in the use of raw materials. By being able to form different products more quickly, 3D printing offers companies the opportunity to take advantage of this possibility of a relative optimisation of company inventory and, thus, an improvement in supply chain management.

The automotive industry is the sector drawing the most from the benefits of this technology, and therefore, the implementation of 3D printing itself has received a big boost. The production of tools, one-off parts, jigs, and fixtures of various kinds within the automotive sector is one of the first sources of production that is increasingly exploiting polymers as a viable and cheaper alternative to metals. Volkswagen is one of the big players on the global automotive scene and has seen excellent results thanks to 3D printing in the automotive industry.

Customisation is, in some respects, the real revolution in the automotive sector. Using 3D printing, it is possible to customise certain design elements concerning the structure of the car quickly and easily, and this makes it possible to achieve significant savings by creating a single piece concerning a specific component both inside and outside the vehicle. From this advantage comes another direct application: replacement. Thanks to 3D scanning technologies, it is possible to implement additive manufacturing, i.e. to reproduce spare parts that cannot be found on the market for various reasons, such as discontinued models.

For these advantages, the automotive sector is one of the primary users of 3D printing, second only to the aerospace sector. The freedom of design, coupled with the possibility of producing cheaper but equally durable products, has enabled European and American giants to achieve significant savings in production times and financial savings.

How automotive 3D printing is developed

The applications of such revolutionary technology as 3D printing fall into four main categories encompassing almost all automotive production areas. Firstly, this method has made a significant contribution to prototype design. Prototypes represent a fundamental step in automotive production and development, whether starting with mock-ups or detailed, scale-designed models. Conceptual models allow the engineering teams to verify the overall look and feel. What is often referred to as a car’s visual appeal and user experience starts with prototypes.

Acting with 3D printing with rapid prototyping offers the opportunity to see how the different components relate to each other and thus have a more precise assessment of how the various components work together. The advantage is to have an accurate analysis of what works and what doesn’t so that the necessary changes can be made immediately.

In all this, 3D printing offers evident management, timing and logistical advantages. It speeds up development, thus producing much faster project interactions. With less development time, more tests can be carried out simultaneously, and this way of production eliminates more problems in less time. One of the procedures often used with 3D printing concerns experiments with scale models inside wind tunnels to measure the aerodynamic forces involved to verify the actual performance of the part. After prototypes, the second area of application for 3D printing is tools, fixtures and jigs in general. Reference is made here to the creation of low-cost, fast-use tools. Production aids then represent the other primary application for the automotive sector.

A product such as a car has countless components belonging to different sub-assemblies separated from each other. The assembly of specific elements within the chassis becomes much quicker and easier with production aids. Logic dictates, therefore, that improving production aids also enhances production. Thus, Jigs, clamps, and various fixtures are the focus of developments via 3D printing. By taking advantage of such services, one can obtain tools and fixtures customised to one’s production and a particular project. However, the applications concerning thermoforming moulds, which are used to handle the output of heated extruded plastic sheets, are not to be forgotten. In addition to prototypes and tools, this leads to actual production parts.

The two main categories in which 3D printing comes into action concern producing everything external, visible, and mechanical components. The first group refers to dashboards, seat frames, trim pieces, air intakes, control panels or cooling ducts. In this case, as with the covers and accessories of the centre console, the components are made of polymers such as ABS or thermoplastic materials. What is external comes into contact with the driver and must, therefore, enjoy high manufacturing precision and visual and aesthetic quality commensurate with the brand level.

Since they are not often safety-related, producing these parts via 3D printing is relatively simple. The advantage here is the ease of production, which leads to more straightforward product customisation and, thus, a broader range in one’s offer. Internal components such as mounting brackets and various housings such as suspension quadrilaterals and brake components fall into the second group of parts manufactured by 3D printing. Here, titanium or an aluminium alloy is used, as such components are subjected to high and constant mechanical and thermal stresses.

Therefore, spare parts or maintenance repairs are the fourth application of this technology after prototypes, tools, and production parts. Offering their customers the availability of spare parts is increasingly becoming a challenge for the various manufacturers in the automotive sector. This is because, in the last 130 years, thousands of cars have been produced in as many models.

Each of these cars undeniably requires spare parts that often belong to production lines that have now been discontinued. Therefore, possessing the right part in the right place is a considerable advantage. If you add the logistical details of production to the order and not from stock, costs are further reduced. This is why the speed, but above all, the efficiency of 3D technology, provides an answer regarding economic and management benefits. Digital CAD files can only be used when needed as they are stored on a server, and this is to optimise stock levels, thus eliminating the need to maintain a warehouse stock. Components that are difficult to source for various reasons can be digitally scanned, reverse-engineered, and 3D printed.

The opportunities for 3D printing

As mentioned earlier, all of the advantages are gradually helping to make 3D printing an easily applicable mainstream production method for the automotive sector. Genuine opportunities for this technology can be seen for low to medium production volumes and products with high value or complex geometry. The latest applications for 3D printing are indeed growing and evolving in the automotive sector. First and foremost, there is green mobility.

Like any other sector, the automotive industry is under pressure to steer production towards a more sustainable identity. 3D printing, in this case, dramatically reduces pollution by using parts and components that weigh less. Weight reduction in the order of 10% produces a 6% improvement in fuel efficiency in the thermal sector. On the other hand, the improvements are 14% in the electric industry. In the electric automotive sector, the focus on component weight is higher as introducing a heavy battery pack forces manufacturers to reduce weight elsewhere. By reducing the weight, the car improves its range. Through 3D printing production, carbon emissions related to supply chains are eliminated as CAD files can be sent anywhere in the world with a click.

3D printing services through various technologies

Multi Jet Fusion is among the most popular 3D printing production methods. Developed by HP, this technology offers the possibility of printing complex parts while keeping costs relatively low and with shorter production times than alternative technologies. The market has shown interest in this technology and its potential from the first developments. Complex thin-walled conductors, enclosures, covers, brackets and connectors, wiring clips, sealing rings and limited runs can be produced here. Spare parts and pre-production items can be made. The services offered by MJF technology allow more models to be monitored within a single work cycle even while printing, and this allows the various mechanical, functional and aesthetic properties of the parts produced to be managed. On the other hand, SLA resin printing uses linear lighting with a flexible reservoir to achieve perfect prints from liquid resin.

Stereolithography, therefore, is the new chapter in 3D printing. It greatly reduces the release forces to offer higher print quality and greater reliability concerning the mechanical properties of the part produced. In this case, the printing allows for a very high level of precision. The system of lenses and mirrors that direct the LPU light implements a high-precision production that distinguishes itself from other technologies.

LPBF technology, on the other hand, uses the heat source of the fibre laser to scan and melt metal powders selectively. After cooling, the various now-melted powder particles solidify and produce the component to be printed. LPBF is a highly innovative technology, and the acronym sums up a perfect description of how this process can print metal products: Laser Powder Bed Fusion.

However, Direct Extrusion enables higher extrusion speeds based on a different platform. Through a direct extrusion configuration, the mechanism pushes the filament into the nozzle directly. This operation can achieve considerable advantages, including more reliable extrusion, better retraction, and the possibility of working with a less powerful motor and a more comprehensive range of filaments. Estimates have shown a 20 to 50-fold increase in speed compared to conventional FDM with significantly reduced costs.

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