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The 3D printed vehicles of tomorrow are racing into production

From new materials to fully 3D printed vehicles, the mobility sector is moving closer to a revolution

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Since as early as the 1980s, automotive companies have been exploring the potential applications of additive manufacturing technologies in car making. Auto giant Ford purchased the third 3D printer ever made, a move which helped to solidify the intersection between the two industries early on. Now the time is here for the 3D printed vehicles of tomorrow to enter the stage.

Now, nearly 30 years after Ford purchased one of the first 3D printers, the impact of additive manufacturing on the automotive and transport industries is abundantly clear, as we’ve seen the technology transform from a novelty demonstration tool to a rudimentary prototyping system, and eventually to a sophisticated process for manufacturing production parts.

As AM technologies continue to advance and evolve, there is little doubt that its applications and uses within the automotive sector will continue to grow. Let’s take a look at how some automotive and transport industry leaders have already adopted the technology.

3D printed, smart cars

Since its founding in 2007, Arizona-based Local Motors has followed an ethos of low-volume, local manufacturing. No one thought it was possible but now the company has mini-factories located in four cities across the U.S. and one in Berlin, Germany, working on almost fully 3D printed cars. Local Motors has been able to maintain low-volume manufacturing largely thanks to additive manufacturing technologies.

At its Berlin facility, Local Motors has been especially focused on the development of “Olli,” an autonomous shuttle whose production has relied heavily on 3D printing. As Carlo Iacovini, Local Motors’ marketing director in Berlin, told us, the facility is using Cincinnati Incorporated’s large-scale BAAM 3D printing system to create final parts for the self-driving vehicle.

The parts, made from a carbon fibre composite in an ABS matrix, include wheel covers, seats, and many internal components. Additive manufacturing is also being used to develop a fully customizable Olli shuttle, which would comprise almost entirely 3D printed parts.

“Our goal at Local Motors is to combine Ollie’s development with mobility innovation,” Iacovini explained. “We now have a product that can meet all mobility requirements. So we are going to develop that vehicle for all types of services but at the same time, we are also going to use it to progress automotive manufacturing technology and processes, which means extensive development in terms of adopting 3D printing.”

3D printed vehicles of tomorrow

“We don’t want to just test 3D printing and use it for prototyping. We want to fully integrate it into our production process for final parts. We want to share our findings with other automotive manufacturers and also work with them on the development of new materials, applications, and solutions.”

While many automotive companies are moving their production towards additive manufacturing, Local Motors has almost predicated itself on the technology, becoming a real pioneer of AM within the automotive sector.

Materials are the ignition key

As one of the world’s largest automakers, it is hardly a surprise that Fiat Chrysler (FCA Group) has been exploring the automotive applications of additive manufacturing for several years. In 2015, the company unveiled its Alfa Giulia vehicle, which incorporated a front grid developed and prototyped using 3D printing technology. The car marked a landmark moment for FCA and AM.

Since then, the company has increased its exploration of additive manufacturing and has been working to overcome the challenges of using metal and polymer-based AM processes for the large-volume production of end-use automotive parts.

“System OEM’s—especially in metal AM—are working on solutions to improve process speed and automation but we are still far,” commented Roberta Sampieri, who leads the Design for Additive program at FCA Additive and acts as Manufacturing & Innovation Manager. “Loading a single print job today takes a worker as long as two hours. These processes need to become leaner otherwise AM will remain just a fascinating prospect. At FCA we may need to manufacture as many as 1,000 parts in one day and we cannot fill a factory with 1,000 3D printers to do it.”

In addition to the challenges of time and cost that come with implementing 3D printing on a mass production scale, there is also the question of materials. This issue is being addressed by FCA engineers who are developing a certification system to validate materials for end-use applications.

“We are working toward building up an internal certification on…the AM materials, AM process, and the additively manufactured parts in order to guarantee the quality and durability of the parts that we are going to produce,” said Nunzio Di Bartolo, the Head of Prototypes, Materials & Proving Ground of EMEA Product Development. “The system manufacturers have generally been implementing a closed and rigid approach to materials but this is changing now. Our experience working with new materials and validating them is going to be of fundamental importance in implementing AM for final part production in the automotive sector, to the benefit of the entire industry.”

FCA Group sees the biggest potential for AM in the production of traditionally heavy structural parts (like engine components) which could benefit from significant weight reductions; parts that could be optimized for better performance using complex and lightweight 3D structures. FCA’s Roberta Sampieri will be present at the upcoming In(3D)ustry automotive panel to discuss how the company is moving ahead with its additive production.

Part production has already begun

At Deutsche Bahn’s maintenance workshops, the leading German railway company has already implemented AM as a critical process for the manufacturing of spare parts. As Stefanie Brickwede, Deutsche Bahn’s Head of AM explained, the company is already using 3D printing tech to make coffee machine parts, coat hooks, steering wheel covers, headrest frames, and much more.

Going beyond simply using additive manufacturing as a prototyping tool, Deutsche Bahn is committed to exploring various types of 3D printing processes for end-use parts, including polymer-based printing (using mainly PA-12 as a material), and metal 3D printing, for which it mainly uses aluminium-based materials. Notably, the company recently produced its first titanium part using AM.

Deutsche Bahn has achieved these 3D printing breakthroughs by collaborating with various 3D printing services and companies which have offered access to state-of-the-art technologies. This means the company has been able to leverage the technology without having to invest in its own 3D printing equipment.

Currently, the German railway giant has 3D printing experts at each of its maintenance workshops who are working to find more train parts that would benefit from being 3D printed. To advance this effort, Deutsche Bahn also founded the “Mobility goes Additive” network in September 2016.

Who knows how many 3D printed components you’ll come into contact with next time you ride a Deutsch Bahn train!

The 3D printed vehicles of tomorrow

Local Motors, Fiat Chrysler, and Deutsche Bahn are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact 3D printing has had on the automotive and transport industries. Virtually all automakers have investigated the technology in some capacity, and most, if not all, have acknowledged its benefits.

BMW, Mercedes, Ford, Audi, Toyota, Kia, Bentley, McLaren, Ferrari, and Volkswagen are just some of the other car manufacturers that are using additive manufacturing for a wealth of different projects and applications.

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites and, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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