3D Printing Technology for automotive industry

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It is true that 3D printing is already the “everyday” for modern automotive industry production? Any particular will be made using additive manufacturing? So cars value will go down? Quiet … examine the points one at a time, and we draw our conclusions.

Today with the term 3D printing are generally defined all prototyping and production additive technologies present on the market. Some of these utilize material in a liquid state, other powder still other material in a solid state: what they have in common is the use of heat to change the state of the material to model it according to the mathematical construction lines of the 3d file source. About 30 years ago it was love at first sight between the automotive industry and additive rapid prototyping with the appearance of Stereolithography (SLA), useful to achieve conceptual and aesthetic models of non-structural components and used even today, for our direct experience, to achieve headlights of cars of samples or motorcycles obtaining a high degree of transparency and a good yield in wind tunnel tests both for the seal and the degree of illumination. Although this is not the final material is still a quick and valuable way to get feedback during the part design. Similarly the Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is a valid support to build also structural components that will remain however prototypes (it does not use final material) and thus will never be mounted on a car to be put on the road. Our experience with some car manufacturers and linked companies shows us every day the importance of the transition from the CAD file to a plastic prototype to final piece still made with traditional technologies in injection moulding series.

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Another truth is the widespread use of the additive 3D printing technology to achieve the final components that are then mounted on the real car. The R&D laboratories of the automakers are engaged for some time now in the study of new solutions offered by Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) technology and FDM technology combining high structural performance and containment of fixed production costs revolutionizing “series” traditional vision. Today laboratory tests and road tests focus on car prototypes, on cars of new conception as for example the solar bus “Olli” which components, according to the original project, will be fully realized with 3D printing technologies to enable an extreme personalization of forms based on the customer request. The technology that most intrigues the automotive world, but not only, is the Direct Metal Laser Sintering, a fusion of metal powder to get pieces in the final material more quickly, with less use of material and therefore with less weight on the complete body and with lower costs refer only to the specific need of production, no fixed costs or inventory to manage. Studies on the structure of the samples show that these new parts can fully replace pieces made with traditional technologies although this step requires a rethink on the details themselves and therefore a remarkable job of CAD design to adapt the old math to new technology, however, being able to count on a new flexibility of shape and design before unattainable with traditional melting technologies or mechanical processing.

Now we can answer the last question: will the cost of cars subside? Not for the moment! Today these new steps are regarding only the skeleton of the car and some exterior details, not yet an integral part of engine and transmission components, so it is reasonable to think that the future impact on savings will still be fairly limited. But we should not despair: the combination of research and technology repeated us for centuries this mantra: “Never say never” … therefore we have to invest intellectual and material resources to research and wait for the new that will be!

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