Automotive additive manufacturing has been embedded into the core of the auto industry in the form of rapid prototyping since the very first AM technologies appeared at the end of the 1980s. In fact, General Motors was one of the four companies to install the SLA-1 from 3D Systems, the first 3D printer ever created, in 1987. AM has subsequently gradually entered new areas of the automobile industry, such as motorsports and luxury limited editions, to then open new possibilities in terms of mass customization.
The next and final phase of automotive additive manufacturing adoption is now seeing AM radically alter supply chain and production dynamics, becoming the standard for tooling and enabling new possibilities in spare parts and obsolescence management. The ultimate goal remains the introduction of AM technologies to digitalize and further automate serial mass production. In particular, the unstoppable EV revolution stands to both benefit and further drive the adoption of AM, starting with a strong demand for prototyping and developing an entirely new generation of vehicles and eventually continuing through weight optimization and integrated subassemblies becoming a key requirement to extend mileage and reduce energy consumption within increasingly “solid-state” vehicles.
As one of the first major consumer product industries to do so, the implications and the potential for this paradigm shift are extremely significant for both AM and the global manufacturing industry as a whole. The implications of automotive additive manufacturing extend to all industries linked to parts production, from raw materials to global distribution. The prospects, given the sheer scale of the global automotive market, are incredibly important for the development of automotive additive manufacturing technology. As high throughput AM technologies such as thermal powder bed fusion (MJF, HSS, SAF) and high-speed photopolymerization (DLS, cDLM, etc.) continue to become more established, this year we may finally see an escalation of metal AM adoption within automotive.
The production requirements of the automotive segment—and its subsegments—are unique, and strictly tied to both the underlying characteristics of the automotive segment (high productivity requirements, lower cost of materials, high automation of production), its changing trends (demand, regulations, scale economics, geopolitical situations, supply chain dynamics) and macro trends (propulsion systems, mass customization, smart mobility, connectivity and digitalization).
Most manufacturers of 3D printing technology have established strong ties and experience developing and selling solutions to the auto industry. The reality, however, is that the additive manufacturing industry at large is still only just waking up to the challenges associated with vertically integrated manufacturing solutions.
The next phase of innovation, adoption, and industrialization of automotive additive manufacturing passes through the scaling up of final parts production. In order for AM technologies to complete the necessary transition, several steps will need to be taken. These include continued investments in technology R&D from major stakeholders in both the AM and the automotive industries; increased AM integration in the end-to-end manufacturing workflow to reduce costs and increase speeds, as well as the continued development of DfAM (Design for Additive Manufacturing) optimizations. With new machines such as SLM Solutions’ 12-laser NXG 600 system, and especially new metal binder jetting systems such as Desktop Metal’s P-5 Production Systems, GE Additive’s H3 series, HP’s MetalJet and ExOne’s X1 160Pro targeted specifically at this market segment and arriving into the market this year, the past tow years have been shaping up as a most critical period for this next phase of AM’s growth. Now, most of those machines are ready to begin producing millions of parts for the automotive industry at costs that should eventually be competitive with widely used MIM technologies.
In this first AM Focus of 2023, together with some of the most important automotive and AM industry stakeholders and experts, we build upon our previous Automotive AM Focus editions (dating back to 2020) to continue to shed light on the latest developments for automotive additive manufacturing in terms of hardware technologies, material science and production automation, presenting an additional analysis of how AM is enabling the EV revolution.
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