From initial use as a prototyping tool to additive manufacturing’s role as an enabler for electrification, mobility, and more, the automotive industry is accelerating additive manufacturing. John Rupp, Advanced Manufacturing Technical Advisor, Cummins; Manoj Patnala, Wrapped Cockpit and Trim Global Core, Body Interiors, Ford Motor Company; and Kevin Baughey, Transportation and Motorsports Segment Leader, 3D Systems discussed how the technology is being used, challenges that exist, and how additive manufacturing is impacting aspects of the manufacturing process.
John Rupp: Where are you seeing AM being used in automotive sector?
Manoj Patnala: In the automotive space, AM has been used quite a bit for prototyping and understanding for initial feasibility. Now, based on how things have been evolving in printing technologies and materials, there are many opportunities to use AM for production. It has to have the right cost equation, the right volume equation. AM is in that phase of the technology journey where we will see AM use for volume production in a few years.
Kevin Baughey: There’s two dimensions. What we’ve seen is heavy use of additive in form and fit prototyping. Now, we’re seeing an expansion on the functional prototyping. We get into higher volume prototyping; evaluating the function of the component as it’s designed, or as it’s meant to be used by the consumer. We’re seeing applications on the production side. When you work out the economics, and you have an application well suited in AM, we’re starting to see materials and equipment start to make that leap. That other dimension speaks to the applications. Indirect manufacturing like jigs, fixtures, robots, etc., to support the manufacturing process has been around a while. On the direct side, we’re seeing applications in body interior components, trim panels, visual surface texture, and ducting. Now that the materials are available for heat and flame resistance, we’re seeing applications under the hood or higher temperature applications. For metals, we see titanium for light weighting, inconel for high heat, and more aluminum alloys for structural and energy fluid.
J.R.: The applications that you’re seeing and applying for new products, is that utilizing design for additive manufacturing or relying on supply chain?
M.P.: Right now the journey in additive is primarily done by the OEMs or in-house. We see the supply chain is catching up. Because of the nature of the work, quite a bit of the journey happens inside the OEM. The supply base gets engaged much later, depending on what the product is.
K.B.: We’ve seen the OEMs are really leading efforts on where additive is going to be leveraged and identifying suitable applications. However, key tier ones, tier twos and full service are developing technologies. You have to split this into those that are more traditional systems and components and applying additive to it, and then those systems that are designed for additive. There’s going to be a lot of movement in the OEM and large tier one space to designing for additive.
J.R.: Ford considered titanium engine valves in the eighties. Is additive manufacturing renewing this interest?
M.P.: Specific to the engine valves, I can’t answer that. But I can tell you titanium is a very good material that is being considered for additive. It’s an expensive material, but there are a lot of benefits to it. Ford is considering titanium just like Ford considers other materials.
K.B.: We think of applications for any structural component as static, load bearing and so on. There’s a really good use of additive for high inertia systems; like valves, high spinning systems where the benefit of lightweighting can really exponentially extend the value. For energy and fluid, we tend to think more in terms of physics and forces. The physics of fluid dynamics and energy transfer is something that we’re seeing a lot of interest because you can get certain geometries, certain thin walls, and part consolidation.
J.R.: Which metal technology do you believe will be used more in automotive? Binder jet, laser, electron-beam, or any others?
M.P.: All of them have opportunities. We are engaged in couple of those technologies and are looking for the right opportunities. Each of them have certain benefits that really make it advantageous from a volume standpoint and how large the part is. It depends on the application and what kind of volume one is looking for. If it’s a thousand units, the technology chosen would be something different, versus if it’s 10,000 units or 30,000 units.
K.B.: Some reports and analysts are really bullish on powder bed fusion. When you look at the applications and at the benefits of each of the technologies, they each find their own area to serve automotive. The automotive industry is one of the biggest electronics and consumer-oriented products. It also incorporates so many different systems that you can find applications for all of the different technologies. There are some technologies that are going to grow beyond what even some of the analysts are seeing. Many have viewed photopolymers as limited to prototyping, but the surface texture finish and innovations in material properties, are making it suitable for years of use. There are applications for all types of technologies in automotive.
J.R.: I don’t know if it’s a trade secret or not, but how many production parts have been made using additive manufacturing in Ford’s cars?
M.P.: There are a couple already in production. There’s one on the Ford Raptor, F-150 Raptor. Ford GT has some parts. There are a lot more in consideration. The materials and technology have developed quite a bit. We are seeing more opportunities to do reductive or generative design, or where the volume and the cost makes sense. We are going to see more parts that are going to be produced with additive technologies.
K.B.: For automotive, many think of high-volume mass production. We started talking mass customization and creating unique variants more than a decade ago. It was amazing when you looked at the take rates of certain systems within high volume production vehicles just how many unique parts there were in lower volumes. There were a lot of unique electrical system components that were very small take rates, very high value often associated with higher value systems on the vehicle, infotainment systems and so on. The economics are just working out. Now that we have some of the materials suited for automotive use, whether it’s the environmental, chemical resistance, or long life to meet the standards, automotive is open for application. There are applications we’ll start seeing pretty soon, beyond hyper performance specialty cars. We’re going to see it go mainstream pretty quickly.
J.R.: Being a good carpenter, putting a building together, what are the right materials for the right foundation’s building? That leads into how you manage a combination of classic manufacturing and additive. How do you make an evaluation of what should we do additive and what should we do traditional?
M.P.: It needs to happen very early in the journey. Looking at an example, an instrument panel has 250 to 300 components that come together. Based on the take rate for a specific variant, calculations need to be done early to understand where additive makes sense and where traditional manufacturing makes sense. If there’s a possibility parts can be combined and you have a material that suits the performance aspects, you want to see if you have the cost equation. In some cases, if the supplier already has the capital for the classic manufacturing, then the cost might come out really low. If there are performance requirements that only additive can deliver, additive becomes a good choice. As you start to analyze the numbers, you want to understand what kind of additional benefits do 3D printed parts produce? It’s a case-by-case basis. Low volume scenarios or personalization makes the discussion easier.
K.B.: Program or cycle planning are going to look at the economics. Where does the economics really work in terms of making a viable business plan? Systems engineering has an understanding of what it takes to make the vehicle and how the systems are going to work. Where the interfaces lie, is where technological decisions are made. We’ve done a good job of getting to the component engineers and optimizing around the parts. We’ve done less well communicating to those program managers, cycle planners, and the systems engineers. We’re going to see a lot of communication, a lot more participation from those communities. When we do, then it’s really going to start to penetrate the industry.