3D Printing ProcessesAdditive ManufacturingAutomotive AMElectric VehiclesSustainability

How 3D printing can streamline electric vehicle manufacturing

EV and 3D printing: a natural marriage of technologies, ushering a novel, efficient era in automotive

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Speed, customization, cost-effectiveness… The list of benefits for 3D printing in electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing is a long one.

IEA estimates that over 26 million electric cars were on the road in 2022, a 60% increase from the previous year. While this number is still a drop in the ocean in terms of the overall automotive market, the gap is closing faster than ever.

And EV doesn’t just refer to cars. Electric scooters, trolleys, trams, unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned underwater vehicles, drones, EVTOL helicopters, and personal watercraft can all be categorized as electric vehicles.

As the world pushes towards a renewable future, automakers are constantly looking for ways to streamline their processes.

Additive manufacturing fits the bill perfectly and is already being used for everything from prototyping to printing entire vehicles.

Rapid EV prototyping

With demand for electric vehicles surging, manufacturers’ product development timelines are becoming increasingly aggressive.

3D printing allows for accelerated prototyping. Design files can be easily tweaked to make iterations digitally, then instantly printed to test a physical version of the part.

This eliminates the lengthy wait times and high costs associated with traditional methods, where each individual prototype design would need to be outsourced and fulfilled by processes like molding, casting, or machining.

Consequently, time to market is significantly reduced – vital in an industry where new ideas are emerging every other day.

Once a winning prototype is found, it’s often possible to begin production by simply scaling up the same 3D printing operation.

Manufacturing end-use parts

A big plus for additive manufacturing in the current EV climate is the ability to print parts on demand and in low volumes. While on a per-unit basis traditional methods are likely cheaper, high MOQs prevent them from being cost effective.

Additionally, 3D printing lets engineers fabricate intricate, organic geometries with minimal material usage and consolidate multiple parts into one clean print, removing the need for assembly. You also lessen the risk of supply chain issues as parts can be printed anywhere.

But does all this mean sacrificing quality? No, actually quite the opposite. 3D printing even allows for tailored solutions to some of the specific problems posed by electric vehicle manufacturing.

For example, as less material is required in many components, vehicles can be made lighter. This enhances battery life and extends range. Smaller parts afford more space for passengers, accessories, or a larger battery too.

Cooling is another major consideration for EVs. Additive manufacturing provides access to an ever-expanding pool of materials, many of which have favorable thermal properties.

Carbon fiber and aluminum are popular choices for their impressive strength, while lithium cobalt oxide can be used to create battery electrodes.

Other end-use EV parts currently being manufactured with 3D printing include heat exchangers, solid-state batteries, brackets, connectors, drive housings, HVAC kinematics, lighting bezels, and aesthetic components such as cup holders.

Though you may not see them on the roads just yet, some companies are already experimenting with fully 3D printed vehicles.

Another way automakers are streamlining their electric vehicle manufacturing efforts is by building microfactories. These specialized factories are highly automated, less expensive to run, and set up with the sole purpose of producing low volumes of EV parts. This route makes it possible to give customers greater freedom to customize their vehicle, which looks to be the direction EV is headed.

How 3D printing can streamline electric vehicle manufacturing: a natural marriage of technologies, ushering a novel era in automotive
Some recent examples of leading automakers using 3D printing

Production tooling

3D printing doesn’t have to consume the entire manufacturing process, it can work in tandem with traditional techniques.

Volkswagen Autoeuropa, maker of the renowned Scirocco and Sharan models, now 3D prints almost all of its factory tooling. Why? It’s a far more economical way of producing custom tools, jigs, fixtures, and other manufacturing aids, without having to rely on external suppliers. According to UltiMaker, “The transition to 3D printing saved Volkswagen Autoeuropa 91% in tool development costs and reduced development time by 95%”.

Crucially, it’s straightforward (and very fast) to refine 3D models and create variations of these manufacturing aids whenever necessary. Again, this is ideal for testing new designs or materials, and offers potentially unlimited customization options for consumers.

As a bonus, 3D scanning can be introduced for ultra-efficient quality inspection. Automakers can quickly gather precise measurements of even the most complex geometries, ensuring that tools always adhere to quality control specifications.

If something isn’t quite up to scratch, it is easily repaired or replaced with additive manufacturing. Over time there are huge savings to be had, both direct and in terms of opportunity cost by minimizing downtime.

The future of 3D printing for EV manufacturing

Additive manufacturing has had a tricky time gaining traction in traditional automobile production, where processes and supplier relations are already long-established. Besides, the tech isn’t ready for mass production yet anyway.

However, EV represents a new, modern type of machine that requires a modern approach to manufacturing. For low volume, on-demand, highly customizable production, 3D printing is a perfect solution – by becoming a key part of the EV manufacturing process so early on, additive can scale in tandem and cement itself as the industry standard long-term.

Looking ahead, the potential use cases for 3D printing are endless.

For instance, electric vehicles are synonymous with autonomous driving. As being a passenger in your own car becomes common practice, interior design freedom takes a front seat. With the driver’s focus shifting inside the vehicle, 3D printing permits them to craft a more personalized environment.

As of 2022, all new homes and buildings in England are legally required to have an EV charging point installed, and suppliers are already struggling to keep up with demand. Manufacturers will inevitably turn to 3D printing to expedite the production of integral parts like circuit holders, casings, and enclosures.

These days it’s hard to talk about new technology without mentioning AI. Text-to-3D model AI tools will let automakers generate new concepts for parts or manufacturing aids faster than ever, which could then be printed for testing. Imagine giving customers a portal where they could generate custom designs for parts and have them printed on demand – this wouldn’t be possible without additive manufacturing.

AI may eventually be integrated into 3D printers to help them automatically detect and react to changes in the work environment that could cause variance or errors.

3D printing offers manufacturers an innovative, efficient, and adaptable solution for the unique challenges posed by electric vehicles. With its capacity to accelerate prototyping, facilitate flexible, on-demand production, and optimize existing factory workflows, additive manufacturing is poised to become a mainstay in the EV space.

At Surface Scan, we regularly scan and print vehicle parts for a variety of reasons. From creating custom accessories and reverse engineering obsolete parts, to generating digital twins of luxury cars, our team has seen it all.

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Daniel Carson

Daniel Carson is the founder of Surface Scan, a prominent UK-based company specializing in 3D scanning and printing. What began as a passionate hobby has transformed into over a decade of hands-on experience in additive manufacturing and digital modelling. Daniel’s collaborations span diverse sectors, from automotive to healthcare, providing him with unique insights into the transformative power of 3D technologies over conventional manufacturing. Beyond delivering expert services, Daniel is committed to sharing his expertise, guiding those new to the 3D realm on their journey.

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