Despite an increasing number of 3D printing application to manufacturing sector such as aerospace and healthcare, many researchers and studies advocate that 3D printing is not effective for mass production mainly due to its elevated cost, speed, and scalability (1). This argument has also been applied to automobile manufacturing. 3D printing has been utilized only in low-volume and niche applications such as prototypes and spare parts, where the technology could contribute to cost efficiency by eliminating high inventory cost and mold fabrication (2). With recent development of the technology, however, VW started thinking whether it should take transformational step in 3D printing to start mass production of metal parts with it. 3D printing will replace the conventional supply chain and mass production process, an invention from over 100 years ago?
DAWN FOR 3D PRINTING
3D printing technology was invented in 1984, however it had never unleashed its potential until recent years (3). An increasing number of patent expiration in recent years changed this scenario. As patents expired, many companies entered the market and accelerated the development, making this technology faster and more cost-friendly (4). In 2018, HP, one of the leading 3D printing manufacturer, launched an advanced 3D printing technology for the high volume metal parts manufacturing which prints parts 50 times faster than ever (5) and gave automotive OEMs an opportunity to use the technology for the production of a large number of parts, simplify its supply chain where 6,000 to 8,000 different parts are produced by many suppliers, and reduce lead time of production.
Although most automotive OEMs are conservative, if not skeptical, to use 3D printer for their production, VW started using the technology in its Portugal plant in 2014 (6) and became a pioneer in 3D printing in automotive sector. In 2018, in collaboration with HP and GKN Powder Metallurgy, an automotive component manufacturer, VW started the production with HP’s advanced 3D printing, aiming to be able to produce individualized design parts such as tailgate lettering and special gear knobs in the short term. In the medium term, by building on these productions, the company plans to further develop the technology and to print the first structural components for mass production vehicles within two to three years (7). According to Dr Martin Goede, Head of Technology Planning and Development, Volkswagen, “A complete vehicle will probably not be manufactured by a 3D printer any time soon, but the number and size of parts from the 3D printer will increase significantly.”(8)
VW’s strong commitment to 3D printing shows that its strategy is to create competitive advantage by being the first mover in the technology and its actions such as investment on R&D are aligned with its strategy. With clear goal and alignment, the company positions well to secure the potential benefit from the technology, but if the company seeks to strengthen its position to further secure its potential merit, here are some recommendations.
Short term: First, VW should set higher barriers for its competitors to use 3D printing by strengthening the relationship with HP and GKN Powder Metallurgy, so that it can enjoy the merit longer period. Second, when the company develops enough capability to broaden the lineup produced in 3D printing, it should focus on the parts that consume low volume of raw materials in conventional production process. Typically, these parts require high inventory costs of raw materials because the difference between minimum sales lot of supplier and customer demand causes longer inventory period. Also, these parts usually suffer low yield of raw materials, generating high volume of scrap. 3D printing has strengths in solving these problems, so that the company can improve its cost structure while further developing the technology (9). Third, it is important to create trust between people and cars with parts produced in 3D printing, especially on safety perspective.
Medium term: The company should set tailored exterior body parts as one of the most important goal in the medium term. As one of the biggest differentiation of 3D printing from conventional production is in flexibility to customization, the tailored exterior body parts should give the company competitive advantage. Interactive customization would be the strength of the car made in 3D printing.
One day if customers change their mind about level of customization for cars, cars would be treated as if house, which many people spend time to customize. This disruptive conceptual change would redefine the role of automotive OEMs and their supply chain, putting cars off the assembly line.
What kind of emotion autonomous driving cars would offer to people?
Who would be the target customer if people can design their own car?
(1) B. Roca et al., Getting past the hype about 3-D printing. MIT Sloan Management Review 58, no. 3 (Spring 2017): 57–62.
(2) Matthias Holweg. “The Limits of 3D Printing.” Harvard Business Review Digital Articles (June 23, 2015).
(3) “History of 3D Printing: It’s Older Than You Are (That Is, If You’re Under 30).” AUTODESK. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.autodesk.com/redshift/history-of-3d-printing/
(4) Alan S. Brown. “Chain reaction: Why additive manufacturing is about to transform the supply chain.” Mechanical Engineering 140, no. 10 (October 2018): 30–35.
(5) “HP launches world’s most advanced metals 3D printing technology for mass production to accelerate 4th industrial revolution.” Manila Bulletin (October 21, 2018).
(6) Lauren Loew. “3D Printing Continues Making Inroads In Auto Industry.” Mondaq Business Briefing (September 14, 2018).
(7) James M. Amend. “Volkswagen Takes Big Step in 3D Printing.” WardsAuto (September 12, 2018).
(8) “Ready for mass production: Volkswagen uses the latest 3D printing process for production.” VOLKSWAGEN. Accessed November 12, 2018.
(9) Richard A. D’Aveni. “The 3-D Printing Revolution.” Harvard Business Review May 2015.