3D Printers Offer New Dimension in Manufacturing

From fabricating entire structures to specific parts, 3D printing can create most components of an innovative automobile and in the future could build an entire car.

Kitty So

April 17, 2015

6 Min Read
Local Motors Strati 3D car printed driven at 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show
Local Motors Strati 3-D car printed, driven at 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show.

OTTAWA – Developments in 3D printing technology are revealing significant opportunities for automakers to cut costs and time while having more freedom in design.

From fabricating entire structures to specific parts, 3D printing can create most components of an innovative automobile and in the future could build an entire car.

Later this year, Phoenix-based Local Motors is preparing to release the design of a highway-ready, 3D printed vehicle, Chief Financial Officer Jean Paul Capin tells WardsAuto. He adds it likely will be electric and include four seats.

This follows the company’s 3D printing of another vehicle, the Strati. “The Strati is more proof of concept,” Capin says. ‟It doesn’t mean we can’t bring it to market, but it would be brought to market as a low-speed electric vehicle. The applications are multiple – it could be a fleet vehicle, such as in a car-sharing program.”

Local Motors is working to obtain government certification for the Strati by next year, he says.

All non-mechanical parts of the Strati were printed in carbon-fiber-reinforced acrylonitrile butadiene (ABS) styrene plastic. The company does not print electrical parts and components such as brakes, tires, rims, batteries and engines, because there already is a traditional, relatively inexpensive supplier base, Capin says.

However, he notes, in the future it could become cost-effective to print these parts.

Local Motors uses a fused deposition modeling process to print the structure of vehicles with an innovative feed system using pellets of material instead of filament. The pellets of about 20% reinforced carbon fiber and 80% ABS are melted and deposited through an extruder head, building layer-by-layer while being compressed throughout the process.

A large-scale router, or high-speed mill, then works through the body of the car and removes some of the material to leave a smooth finish. This can be waxed, left as a matte finish, vinyl-wrapped or painted, Capin says. Finally, the components are assembled into the vehicle.

Local Motors is working with the Saudi Arabia-based Saudi Basic Industries (SABIC) to develop and source the feedstock. Eventually it could be possible to include different types of materials in specific parts of the car structure that are printed in one piece, for instance, flexible elastomer used in bumpers.

The company is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to develop software tailored to 3D printing. The software ‟needs to evolve because computer-assisted-design software is not traditionally made in automotive for 3D printing a car,” Capin says. ‟So there’s specific limitations to the machine – the angles of print; the way you can have ledges and arches within the structure.

‟The software does not allow you to red-flag it and tell you that you can’t actually get that printed.” If such problems are resolved, buying a printer, router and 1,500-sq.-ft. (139-sq.-m) facility would be significantly cheaper than setting up a traditional production line, he says.

Other potential benefits to future manufacturing include the elimination of hazardous materials, a greener process with facilities powered by electricity, reduced production time and vehicle designs that could be highly customizable.

While Local Motors has been able to reduce the printing process time from 140-160 hours per print to 40 hours, the company is working toward a goal of 12 hours per print.

Another challenge is that the faster the printing process, the less resolution can be achieved and the less fine and smooth the layers can be. This could be improved by having two extruder heads instead of one, Capin says.

Technology Speeds Tooling, Prototyping

While the ability to 3D print an entire vehicle is an important development, the technology can offer more immediate benefits for automakers within specific areas of traditional manufacturing, says Andy Storm, U.S.-based general manager of Israeli company Stratasys’ automotive, aerospace and defense vertical solutions business.

For instance, 3D printing can significantly reduce cost and lead time; with a Stratasys machine, users can go through rapid iterations of component design at their workstation.

“An employee can visualize an idea, shape or create a design on their computer, convert the idea to a solid part by instantaneously printing on their 3D printer, which then allows them to touch, see, and feel a real product in their hand,” Storm says. ‟It is the speed at which an employee or employees, in any company or work environment, can test a hypothesis or idea by producing a real part that is so empowering…It is instantaneous discovery that leads to creating better ideas, faster.”

3D printing could be particularly useful in tooling, for instance. The tools in a factory are heavy and expensive to modify; some changes that can be done in-house involve using specialized, multimillion-dollar equipment (computer numerical control, or CNC, machines) that already have long queues of work requests.

However, Storm says many Stratasys customers have Stratasys 3D printers on their factory floors, and engineers can print tooling modifications on-site and in real time, installing the modified tool the same day. The company has implemented these solutions in auto plants in Europe and Asia, he adds.

When preparing to print an automotive component, Stratasys often works with OEMs to develop 3D applications and advanced material solutions. This takes into account the desired electrostatic discharge, thermal properties and conductive properties, as well as any unique shapes and geometries that are impossible to create through traditional manufacturing. The company works with materials such as ABS plastic, nylon and carbon fiber, and can mix different materials in the printing process, Storm says.

The material runs through Stratasys’ machines where filament is melted to create a shape, or droplets of material are cured layer-by-layer with ultraviolet light.

3D printing will provide the freedom of design for automakers to adapt to increasingly diverse consumer demands: “The huge benefit…is that you can meet the level of customization that customers are demanding and have the flexibility and the design freedom to shape solutions without being constrained by traditional barriers…(such as) having to wait for steel to come out of a steel mill.”

Storm notes one key challenge is “opening the minds of traditional manufactures to consider how this new technology can bring immediate benefits that many have never considered possible.”

Peter Cooke, emeritus professor of automotive management at Britain’s University of Buckingham, says 3D printing also could make prototyping auto components more efficient: “Historically, much time has been wasted in evolving components.”

He adds 3D printing could have a revolutionary impact on the parts aftermarket, where dealers can produce on the spot rather than maintaining large stocks of parts – “not necessarily every high-volume part, but components that are not turned over rapidly.”

While Cooke cautions current technology is limited by materials and the potential size of components,“given the speed with which it has developed, I feel it has potential implications right across the automotive industries, which will be both cost- and technology-driven.

‟The scope is as broad as the industry’s collective mind can develop.”

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