By Greg Thompson, Global Product Manager, 3D Printing, Proto Labs
3D Printing Drives Advances
in Automotive Manufacturing
3D printing and other advances enable greater vehicle customization, fewer parts, and lighter designs.
Our connected vehicles are now part of our connected lives. Automakers must not only
deliver connectivity for hands-free calling, navigation,
and music, but more embedded technologies and
sensors for everything from heated seats to automated
In addition to incorporating the latest innovative
technology features with each new model, automakers
must also continue to evolving vehicle designs to be
lighter, more fuel efficient, while offering the mix
of models and in-vehicle options that consumers can
customize to their liking.
Meeting these demands would’ve been unimaginable
20 years ago. Automakers and their suppliers can use
advances in digital manufacturing, like 3D printing and
other digitally-enabled, on-demand production services,
to improve their designs while creating smarter, lighter,
and more customizable vehicles.
Automakers Bullish On 3D
3D printing is rewriting the book on how automakers
can not only design but also produce vehicle parts. The
market for 3D printing within the automotive sector will
continue to grow in the coming years. In fact, projected
spending in the 3D printing automotive market will total
more than $2.3 billion by 2021, as compared with an
anticipated $600 million this year.
With this potential and market capacity, practical use
of the technology isn’t a far-off concept; automotive
3D printing has already arrived. Today, automakers use
stereolithography (SL) 3D-printing processes to produce
highly accurate prototypes, ideal for getting the initial
touch and feel characteristics of lightweight concept
parts. They use selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D-printing
processes to produce prototype parts for functional
testing. With direct metal laser sintering (DMLS)
processes, engineers can continue reducing weight, while
achieving well-designed complex parts that are often
difficult to machine.
A growing number of automakers are also using 3D
printing for end-use production. BMW, for example, has
used additive manufacturing to produce over 10,000
parts for its Rolls-Royce Phantom. The company sees
additive technologies as one of its “main production
methods” in the future, and continues to explore
advances in 3D printing to help shorten production
times and improve flexibility.
Mercedes-Benz is also using SLS 3D printing to produce
high-quality, on-demand spare parts for its trucks. This
allows the company to supply spare parts, even decades
after a model’s production ends, while reducing the
stocking and storage of spares that may never be used.
Driving Better Designs
The greatest benefit 3D printing brings to automotive is
the ability to create more complex designs, while using
fewer lighter parts. The aerospace industry is already
doing this successfully.
GE, for example, used additive manufacturing to
reduce the number of parts in its new turboprop aircraft
engine from 855 down to just 12. This decreased the
engine’s weight by five percent, which in turn will reduce
fuel usage 20 percent, and produce 10 percent more
power than the competition. Fewer parts will also reduce
wear and tear, along with supply chain demands.
Automakers can realize similar benefits if their designs
Figure 1: Design for manufacturability gives product designers
almost immediate design feedback and costing analysis,
enabling rapid design iteration, and a quicker development
cycle. (Image Source: Proto Labs)