Automotive AM

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. 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, and is now looking to open up 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 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.

Automotive additive manufacturing was one of the very first segments to emerge. As high throughput technologies emerge, production is within reach

In the past few years, we’ve seen attempts by high throughput polymer AM technologies such as thermal powder bed fusion (MJF, HSS, SAF) and high-speed photopolymerization (DLS, cDLM, etc.) to scale AM adoption within automotive. In metal we are seeing new and established such as the EOS M300 systems, or the large multi-laser solutions from SLM Solutions’ (the 12-laser NXG 600 system) and various Chinese manufacturers such as BLT and Eplus3D, along and 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 the automotive market segment.

However 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).

For this reason, other more established, AM technologies, such as sand casting and molding using 3D printed cores (in polymer or ceramics) or 3D printed molds (in sand), are now emerging as ideal transitional processes for serial automotive manufacturing. In a growing number of cases, illustrated by Tesla, General Motors and BMW (with both voxeljet and ExOne technologies) among others, sand binder jetting is emerging as a strategic solution for “gigacasting”, that is to produce very complex automotive parts and large that combine multiple components into a single one.

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. 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.

In this first VM Focus of 2024, together with some of the most important automotive and AM industry stakeholders and experts, we build upon our previous 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 has been and will continue to revolutionize the automotive sector.

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