3D printing in automotive industry

How is Ford Motor, a 100-year old automotive company, reacting to opportunities and/or threats of 3D printing technology?

Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is very crucial to automotive industry because it will disrupt traditional automotive part manufacturing process in the near future. It will allow manufacturers to customize products for different customers because unit cost of making one or several units is about the same. It will also allow manufacturers to create newer, lighter, and safer products in shorter lead times[1]. Automotive industry is expected to invest $870 million in 3D printing in 2019 and the figure is expected to grow significantly to $1.8 billion in 2023[2]. Customers are getting used to getting products with the features they want, and this desire applies to the automotive industry as well. Automotive parts such as door handles, signage, trims, and accessories can be customized relatively easily through alterations in the design file. Global manufacturers are expected to expedite adoption of 3D printing technology in order to print parts at authorized representative locations, reducing supply chain complexities and cost, transforming mega factories into micro factories over the next two decades. It will also enable convenient and quick vehicle servicing to maximize customer satisfaction. Currently, prototyping is the largest application for 3D printing. Design freedom and quick turnaround time are important factors that promote market penetration of 3D prototyping. Mass production is not commercially viable because a conventionally manufactured automotive part is 75% to 80% cheaper than the one that is manufactured by 3D printing. In 2030, the gap is expected to shrink considerably to approximately 10%, leading to more mass production by 3D printing[1]. The shift from mass production to mass customization is especially important for luxury and/or sports car manufacturer like Ford Motor company (“Ford”).

Ford is the first to start testing 3D printing of large-scale vehicle parts such as spoilers and other decorations fastened to vehicle exteriors for application in sports cars, using the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer. The Stratasys Infinite Build system is capable of printing automotive parts of practically any shape or length. It could provide a more efficient way to create tooling, prototype parts and components for low-volume vehicles such as Ford Performance products as well as personalized car parts[3]. In addition to its in-house research team, Ford partnered with Carbon3D, a startup that specializes in 3D printing and has over $50 million in funding from Sequoia Capital, Silver Lake Kraftwerk, and Autodesk’s Spark Investment Fund. As of now, 3D printing technology is not speedy enough to create the millions of parts required, but Carbon3D could eventually be put to use crafting personalized car parts for customers because those do not require producing hundreds of thousands of copies. The technology lets Carbon3D produce 3D printed objects that are stronger than other manufacturers and at a speed that is up to 100 times faster. In the medium term, we can expect that Ford will be able to offer a wide range of customized products for different customers as the company envisions that customized car parts will eventually become the norm for the auto industry. For example, a customer could have a steering wheel molded to specifically fit their hands[4].

Several of its competitors partnered with educational and/or research institutions for research and development in 3D printing; for example, Volkswagen is working with University of Washington, while General Motors partners with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, and many more[1]. I realized that Ford is a pioneer of 3D printing in automotive industry and I would strongly encourage the company to continue investing in Research & Development; however, as a short-term recommendation, I believe that Ford should approach educational institutions, in addition to existing technology partners, in order to explore partnership opportunities as several key technologies often come from these researchers and Ford could gain competitive advantages over its competitors through the access to these resources. In the medium term, I would recommend Ford to focus more on mass production as it represents a much larger market opportunity. At the moment, the company is focusing mainly on mass customization which is applicable only for its Ford Performance products such as parts for its Ford Mustang line, while the company has many other products for mass market which can strongly benefit from cheaper and faster mass production by 3D printing.

Lastly, I would to end the essay with the following open question – How should Ford leverage 3D printing and react to potential threats from self-driving car?

[1] Global 3D Printing Materials Market in Automotive Transportation, Forecast to 2024, Frost & Sullivan, accessed November 2018

[2] PR Newswire, “Additive Manufacturing Opportunities in the Automotive Industry: A Ten-Year Forecast – The Automotive Industry Will Exceed $870 Million in 2019 Going on to Reach More Than $1.8 Billion by 2023,” PR Newswire Association LLC, 2015, ABI/INFORM via ProQuest, accessed November 2018

[3] “FORD TESTS LARGE-SCALE 3D PRINTING WITH LIGHT-WEIGHTING AND PERSONALIZATION IN MIND,” press release, March 6, 2017, on FORD website, https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/fna/us/en/news/2017/03/06/ford-tests-large-scale-3d-printing.html, accessed November 2018

[4] JONATHAN VANIAN, “Why Ford is partnering with a hot 3D printing startup,” Fortune, June 23, 2015, http://fortune.com/2015/06/23/ford-hot-startup-3d-printing/, accessed November 2018

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9 thoughts on “3D printing in automotive industry

  1. An interesting topic on the future of the automotive industry. My feeling is that, while this technology is not currently able to scale, there will come a time when all manufacturers will have to incorporate 3D printing in some capacity. The interesting piece here is on the customization of vehicle parts. While I believe there will be some demand for these products, the premium may be high for a long period of time (potentially longer than the 2030 time period you mentioned) due to labor costs and the time associated with single customization. However, I believe that the company can derive significant value from customized auto manufacturing as it relates to autonomous vehicles. Since customer behavior will change in these vehicles (i.e. they will no longer be driving), each one may have different preferences as to what to do during that time. The consumer may decide to watch content, read and relax, have space to eat, etc. This means that demand for a highly customized vehicle, which caters to the customer’s specific need, will therefore increase. Using both 3D printing and driver-less cars will thus look to fundamentally shift the way we know and experience our automotive vehicles.

  2. The future of automotive is very interesting. Given 3D printing costs are expected to lag mass production until at least 2030 and autonomous vehicles are in process, I’d argue it may not be worth investing capital or efforts in being a first mover to the mass production area of 3D printing. I’d argue that Ford’s products for mass market or the company overall would not be disadvantaged if Ford is a second mover and copies other innovation techniques. Additionally, in a world of autonomous vehicles I’d suspect customization because more important and relevant. It will be very interesting to see how the auto industry evolves in the future.

  3. This was a very interesting insight into how 3-D printing could potentially disrupt the immense and very established industry of automotive vehicles.

    I agree that this technology enables customer customization, but one concern that I have for each of the companies adopting this customization is how far they are willing to deviate from their original design and at what point of customization can a Ford vehicle no longer be identified as a Ford vehicle? Is the generally uneducated consumer able to determine the best design for their future vehicle, aside from purely aesthetic functionalities? Will Ford be able to brand themselves and be identifiable on the road if everyone’s vehicle is slightly different?

    In response to your question about how Ford can leverage this technology to become a substantial player in the autonomous vehicle market; I believe that internal customization is a great way to differentiate itself compared to its competition. This enables them to retain their image whilst not sacrificing the safety or hindering the artificial intelligence technology of these future vehicles.

  4. I am curious as to how the eventual rise of 3D-printed car parts will affect the entire automotive supply chain. Companies like Ford generally have a long list of suppliers that provide the multitude of parts that go into an automobile, and I wonder whether the improvement in R&D and prototype time from 3D printing might influence Ford and others to bring more of these parts in-house. Without Ford and others pushing to bring more part manufacturing in-house I think it could take a while for this technology to trickle into the supply chain, since the upfront investment required for part suppliers (often much smaller companies) to completely revolutionize their manufacturing operations could severely slow the adoption of these printing systems.

  5. What is your view on the risk that large scale 3D printing in the automotive industry leads to rampant decentralization of automotive servicing and automotive repair? Currently, to a source a new part for a car requires ordering that part from the original equipment manufacturer. In a world where 3D printing exists at scale (e.g. your local car repair shop could have its own 3D printer) does this risk the traditional repair business models of car manufacturers? If this is the case, then what is the ramifications for quality and safety? My fear for a company like Ford is that any business improvement that comes from being able to personalize a customer’s car may be offset by a decline in servicing business as these very parts can be manufacturer with ease and installed under a decentralized system without control or profits passing through the automotive manufacturer.

  6. In response to your question, I believe Ford should fully embrace the self-driving trend and invest in R&D to become a thought leader in the emerging, disruptive trend. They should partner with the industry groups that have formed on self-driving and be proactive instead of reactive. Ford should leverage 3-D printing by making it a cultural norm within the organization to engage with the technology. The adoption of the technology within the organization needs to be fostered if the fullest potential is to be realized. Ford has a competitive advantage to embrace the self driving technology and should use this as a synergy to their existing core business.

  7. I have some skepticism about investing too much in 3-D printing for mass production. As you mentioned, even by 2030 the expectation is that 3D printing will still cost 10% more than traditional manufacturing. This seems to me like a large gap for a product as expensive to produce as a car. Further, even if Ford does decide to invest, it seems likely that major breakthroughs will occur in startups or at other firms. Many industries are interested in how 3D printing will affect them, so Ford will surely not be the only one trying to figure this out. Instead, perhaps, Ford should make some investments in startups in this space and stay on-top of the trends but not try to lead the innovation pack. I agree with “MH” above that being the second-mover here might not be a disadvantage. (One caveat is that a 10% pricing gap may be something manufacturers are OK with if this way of producing drastically improves operational metrics like lead time. This is something I’d need to learn more about.)

  8. There is already an electric car that was released into the market, LSEV, manufactured solely through 3D printing. Olli, a self driving car of the future is also set out to be manufactured through additive manufacturing. I do not see this trend stopping and therefore it is in Ford’s interest to embrace it and be at the forefront of pushing the frontiers. However, I believe the issues you point out are not necessarily interconnected and it is possible to be say, competitive in 3D printing but not in self driving systems (which lends itself more to machine learning). Ford should therefore partner up with machine learning automotive specialists that can help it think through how the two areas can be successfully linked. There are examples where machine learning is currently being used to solve the problem of printing accuracy and finding approppriate lattice positions/ support structures by using generative design and testing in the pre-fabrication stage, with the aim of improving printing efficiency and cost savings. This can be extended to broad segments defect detection and predictive maintenance in the case of self driving cars.

  9. One thing that the article does not talk about is the quality/durability of the printed parts and safety of the overall vehicle made using 3D printing. In developing countries, where road traffic is very bad and accidents are a daily phenomenon, durability of the car and parts and more importantly safety of the people inside are more valuable. I completely agree to your point that car manufacturers should partner up with leading universities in 3D printing R&D but also include the durability aspect in their research as well. I think Ford’s investment on research of quality and durable 3D printed parts would give them a long-term advantage over their competitors (even if it is after 2030).

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