For The Automakers, Large-Scale 3D Printing Is The Next Powerful Toolbox

Jim Resnick ,  CONTRIBUTOR

"Time is money" is an overused cliché. Yet, in today's hypercompetitive technology marketplace, it's never been truer. The most sophisticated CAD (Computer Aided Design), fluidynamics and crash simulation programs used by auto manufacturers cannot replace actual testing and the various stage gates in the large-scale manufacturing process, but that will soon change. Stamping steel parts still dominates the industry. But large-part 3D printing is quickly racing to the point where it can offer volume producers tangible advantages.

(Also known as "additive manufacturing," 3D printing produces three-dimensional solid objects directly from digital designs through an additive process, either melting or softening material to produce multiple layers, or through stereolithography which cures a reactive resin with a UV laser or another similar power source.)

It's a Jetsonian notion, 3D printing. Right out of Spacely Sprockets. You imagine a part or a widget, punch in some numbers on the Widgetmaker and – presto – out comes a fully functioning thing. We've arrived at that stage where companies can produce widgets in very short order, make changes to those parts and put them into assembly.

In the short- and medium-term, 3D printing will allow much faster time to market with minor variations added to higher volume cars. In the long term, it will not just yield individual parts, but complex combinations of parts from printing stations working in succession, effectively daisy-chained together, and using multiple materials. This level of complexity and depth will be tempered by many factors, not least of which will be the final cost of the product. For example, a $300,000 McLaren exotic sports car will be far more likely to contain a much higher level of 3D printed components than a $30,000 Ford (NYSE:F) Fusion, considering both the comparative costs and the vastly higher customization expected of an exotic car versus a family car.

Like all new technologies, materials and manufacturing processes, the leading edge becomes ever more democratized over time and Ford is now advancing a new partnership with Stsratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS) to print one-piece parts for prototyping and production. It will be some time before high-volume production parts are made from any 3D printing exercise, but Global Industry Analysts, Inc. predicts the total 3D printing market market will reach nearly $10 billion by 2020.

Yet, 3D printing is not entirely new. Aerospace, the military, the tech business, medical device companies and motorsports have been employing it for small parts and prototyping for roughly 15 years. In fact, Ford and Ganassi Racing's winning prototype at the 24 Hours of Daytona back in 2015 used an intake manifold created using 3D printing as a last-minute iteration for that car's EcoBoost V6 engine.

Companies like McLaren have been using additive manufacturing for years for interior parts, but also complicated mechanical parts made from Alumide and other alloys. Frank Stephenson, McLaren's design chief, says "no one even heard of this stuff 20 years ago and we're doing it with everything now. Where new product development cycles were 36 months at best when I started, those cycles are now down to 18 months." Indeed, McLaren Racing and Stratasys also just announced a four-year partnership in which Stratasys supplies 3D printing and additive manufacturing solutions to the McLaren-Honda Formula 1 team.

And the democratization has started. Ellen Lee, Ford's Technical Leader for Additive Manufacturing Research, notes that 3D printing will have a huge influence in making manufacturing more efficient, will improve the speed to market of certain parts and systems and will even allow the skipping of conventional steps in the design process.

"We're now proving the technical feasibility for high-volume 3D printing in the same way aerospace and the medical device industries discovered long ago," says Lee. "And the increase in feasible parts sizes is the critical enabler to allow the much higher volumes the auto industry requires. At some point in the near future, we will arrive at the stage where production intent is a 3D application."

It's not just automakers finding opportunities, either. The performance aftermarket industry is also using 3D printing. Companies like Borla have already started making high-flow throttle bodies from both aluminum and plastic.

But the real future marriage made in heaven will be how the digital design tools cupboard of CAD merges and integrates with a fully digitized and robotically-built 3D printed assemblage of parts. Design, prototyping, computer simulation of real operation, validation, and then parts output could all exist in the digital space so that design changes, iterations and parts production take far less time and use far fewer resources. Take this even further, and it's reasonable to conceive that full unibody structures, monocoques and complex substructures could be the direct output of 3D printing. Of course, cost will be vastly prohibitive for high volume, but for small, niche companies that command a very high price, it's already in the imagination.

"The big question," says Ford's Lee, "and our perennial question when we face new technologies and processes, is not only 'can we do it?' but 'should we do it?'"

Clearly, the whole auto industry is looking at a very powerful new toolbox in 3D printing.

 

This article was originally printed on Forbes.com.