BMW & The Ultimate Printing Machine: How Additive Manufacturing is Revolutionizing the Auto Assembly Line

Additive manufacturing is upending the way auto manufacturers produce vehicles and BMW is leading the revolution

(798 Words)

Financial accounting rules can be just as mutable as they are factual. What was once considered an asset on financial statements is quickly becoming a disposable expense for many manufacturing companies. As additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, becomes mainstream, thousands of manufacturing facilities are now fabricating jigs, fixtures, and manufacturing tools on a print-on-demand basis. Tools that historically have been expensive, labor intensive, and time consuming to produce, are now being designed and fabricated in days at a mere fraction of the cost. One company in particular, BMW, recognized this trend almost 28 years ago and is at the forefront of rethinking the way cars are assembled today.

Historically, auto assembly lines have utilized mill shops and 3rd party resources to fabricate tools that are used on-the-job by workers to assemble vehicles. These tools can range from standard wrenches fabricated to a specific bolt size, to complex vacuum-assisted robotic grippers [1]. Previously, fabricating a single tool could take 7-10 days and cost $12,000; but with additive manufacturing the same tool can now be fabricated in-house, overnight for $2,000 [1]. Fused Deposition Molding (FDM) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) are two of the most common technologies found in the manufacturing industry today. FDM utilizes heated thermoplastic material that is extruded into a printed design. This process is both simple and effective, but is limited to plastic derivatives. SLS uses lasers to sinter powdered material into the required design. This process has the benefit of being able to utilize everything from polymers to metal alloys. The main drawback is the expense and precision associated with operating this process, which requires 5kW of energy and temperature control within 1.8°F [2].

Today, additive manufacturing is being used to produce thousands of one-off and complex, small production parts. Before, when BMW wanted to test a new tool, they would perform a cost-analysis to determine if the material or time savings was great enough to justify the cost of the new tool. Furthermore, if the part was only used sparingly for unique installations or specialty requests, costs would be incurred to store the part for long periods of non-use [1]. Today, BMW engineers develop a new design, fabricate it, field test it, and then iterate multiple prototypes until the perfect tool has been created. This revolution has allowed BMW to create specialty tools focused on everything from weight reduction to ergonomic advancements. One specific example is the 3D-printed “finger cots” which prevent workers from overstretching their thumb joint while pressing rubber stoppers into the vehicle frame [3]. Another is an organically shaped bumper reach tool that reduced the time line workers take to install the rear bumper [1]. Innovations like this that reduce worker injury and fatigue rates would have been too costly to test and produce only a few years ago.

The question that now remains is simple: where is the additive manufacturing industry headed and how will this affect the auto manufacturing industry? The immediate future is plagued by limitations associated with 3D printing. Most printers are designed for rapid prototyping rather than large-scale production. High material costs, inadequate quality control, and dependence on a small number of machine suppliers are the biggest limiting factors [4]. Printing an object requiring less than 0.005 inch tolerance can drastically increase costs, and in an industry where part failures can cause injury or death, out-of-tolerance parts are immediately discarded [1]. Nevertheless, manufacturing engineers continue to refine the additive manufacturing process, while advances in 3D printing technology continue to reduce overall costs. New and enhanced jigs, fixtures, and tools will continue to be developed and auto production lines will continue to be optimized and improved. BMW’s Munich facility already manufactures over 100,000 precision components and that number is only continuing to increase [3]. The long-term future, however, is much more exciting. As technology advances and costs become economically viable, it is not unthinkable to imagine entire vehicles being constructed from additive manufactured parts. Even today, the BMW i8 Roadster’s top cover is only possible due to the weight reduction and strength increase that resulted from 3D printing the part [3].

In conclusion, we must not overestimate the growth and impact of additive manufacturing in the short-term, while alternately not underestimating the long-term impact and potential of this field. With an expected direct additive manufacturing market of $20 billion by 2020 and a forecasted total economic impact of $100 to $250 billion by 2025, it is clear that the auto production, and general manufacturing, landscape is on the precipice of change [4]. As the industry moves forward and additive manufacturing rapidly expands into the mainstream, the questions will begin to shift from which technology is best, to what are the impacts on tangential industries. What will happen to the traditional supplier-consumer supply chain? What will become of manufacturing jobs replaced by technological advancements? Only time will tell.

[1] Joe Hiemenz, “3D Printing Jigs, Fixtures, and Other Manufacturing Tools,” Stratasys, Inc., 2011.

[2] Andrew Wheeler, “Coming Soon: A $5,000 SLS 3D Printer From Sinterit,” 3D Printing Industry, April 23, 2015, https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/coming-soon-a-5000-sls-3d-printer-from-sinterit-47428/, accessed November 2018.

[3] BMW, “Additive Manufacturing: 3D printing to perfection,” https://www.bmw.com/en/innovation/3d-print.html, accessed November 2018.

[4] Jorg Bromberger et al., “Additive manufacturing: A long-term game changer for manufacturers,” McKinsey&Company, September 2017.

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30 thoughts on “BMW & The Ultimate Printing Machine: How Additive Manufacturing is Revolutionizing the Auto Assembly Line

  1. Your article does an excellent job of contrasting the additive developments at BMW with the challenges additive faces within the broader manufacturing industry. It is particularly interesting that you found a case where additive manufacturing, which has historically been cost prohibitive, reduces the time and cost of fabricating a single tool. The challenge going forward is to scale those cost savings at the unit level and make additive feasible for more standardized products. The advances at BMW are exciting, especially printing the i8’s top cover, and it seems like their processes will certainly add to additive’s future viability.

  2. What interests me is how BMW could implement 3D printing for after sales items. As an example, if a BMW is serviced in a country, say South Africa, the parts replaced often have to come from Germany. If these parts could instead be printed when needed, there could be substantial cost benefits to the consumer. Further, older BMWs may also be cheaper to service given that it can be more difficult to find original replacement parts for older vehicles.

  3. I think the impact of 3D printing on manufacturing location and human capital needs for BMW (and other car manufacturers) will prove interesting and likely shift their strategic directions. By utilizing more 3D printing for mass-production there may be a shift of work back towards more developed countries as lower cost labor becomes less influential in decision making. Additionally, the work may require a different type of skill set and therefore a shift in HR organizational hiring practices and overall human capital costs.

  4. Your article does a fantastic job at highlighting the benefits of additive manufacturing on manufacturing flexibility, time and labor. I’m particularly interested in how reducing lead time will affect the auto industry. Inherently, as lead times are reduced, market responsiveness increases [1]. As new models are in market more quickly, will this change customer expectations regarding technology and safety? I wonder if automobile companies will feel pressure to innovate and release newer models more quickly. Either way, it seems like additive manufacturing may enable these companies to keep up.

    [1] Giffi, Craig., Gangula, Bharath. and Illinda, Pandarinath. “A Deloitte Series on Additive Manufacturing.” Deloitte University Press, 2018.

  5. As we saw in Toyota, many auto manufacturers are shifting towards just-in-time inventory strategies. I think additive manufacturing can augment this system extremely well due to significantly reduced manufacturing costs and timeframes. Not only would the manufacturers be able to produce new parts more optimally, they would also be able to fix defects in a fraction of the time. However, you raise very valid concerns around how narrow the margin for error is in the automotive industry, which is exacerbated by how nascent additive manufacturing is. As a result, manufacturers need to ensure 3D printed parts are up to quality control standards and have mechanisms in place to address any potential issues stemming from 3D printed parts.

  6. This is a very interesting article to highlight the first foray of 3D printing into the well-established & labor-intensive automotive manufacturing industry. At the moment, due to its current limitation in large scale production, it appears that 3D printing technology actually helps to improve the human work quality, rather than displacing them. I think even once the technological advancement enables large-scale production, it will replace the requirement of lower-skilled assembly worker to higher-skilled engineers to operate the 3D printing machine. It will require certain re-skilling for the current workers, but not directly causing massive layoff to the entire organization.

    Regarding your open question about the supplier-consumer supply chain, interesting application of this 3D printing technology will be the ability to create customized car design based on individual customer preference – just like what Nike and other footwear companies are able to do in manufacturing custom-made shoes [1]

    [1] Davide Sher, “Closing the 3D printed shoe circle with mass customized uppers”, 3D Printing Media Network, October 22, 2018, https://www.3dprintingmedia.network/closing-the-3d-printed-shoe-circle-with-mass-customized-uppers/, accessed November 2018

  7. This article does a great job of explaining the benefits that 3D printing brings to manufacturing. My only cause for concern is the quality control issues that result from producing tools via 3D printing. I imagine that given the complexity of the production units (in this case, cars), even small variations in tools produced can lead to ineffective repairs, re-making of tools, lost time, and lower productivity. The cost savings may justify these issues, but if they are severe or occur too frequently, BMW and others should rethink their dependency on 3D printing for items with extremely high quality needs.

  8. You raise an interesting question about how additive manufacturing will impact the traditional supplier-consumer supply chain. In my view, the impact will be most profound on the B2B distribution, such as simplifying the operations of BMW’s Munich factory, increasing just-in-time inventory, and reducing how many components are logically outsourced, while the B2C interaction (dealerships, test drives, etc.) will be less impacted by additive manufacturing itself versus other innovation like AR/VR.

  9. BMW appears to be ahead of the curve in additive manufacturing in the automobile space; it will be interesting to see how the company continues to disrupt traditional manufacturing processes. For example, will cars of the future be personalized to each individual’s preferences? Additive manufacturing seems to lower the cost of customizing different parts because machines can be reconfigured to print out a different design with relatively low cost. Having the ability to leverage just in time production with decreased inventory and work in progress transportation costs will also be a competitive advantage once the costs associated with 3D printing decreases.

  10. Car OEMs are consistently focused on cutting costs given the thin margin profile and increasing global competition. 3D printing is an interesting vehicle to continue to optimize the cost structure while providing value to the customer via increased customization. Quicker turnaround times and less reliance on suppliers to perform manufacturing (and testing) will create a lot of value for the OEMs. The risks I see are in (i) potential negative implications on quality given the streamlined nature (less batch shop and specialization) and (ii) diversion of focus away from some other important strategic initiatives such as self-driving cars.

  11. This article does a great job of outlining both the opportunities and the challenges associated with additive manufacturing in automotive. I think that Buzz_Lightyear brings up a great point around the service element of the automotive industry as well – if you couple the ability to more rapidly prototype automotive components during program development with the decreased cost to serve a larger number of programs in the field (thinking through decommissioning older ‘service-only’ manufacturing lines, holding smaller amounts of inventory at global service facilities, cutting out transport of parts in some instances), additive manufacturing could allow auto companies to more continuously improve & respond to customer demands. As mobility needs continue to change, this ability to quickly respond to changes in vehicle design could be a huge competitive advantage for players like BMW.

  12. I found the point of innovation to improve worker’s safety and fatigue extremely interested. Usually, technological innovations can be met with certain skepticism by employees if they believe their jobs are in danger. However, BMW can do a unique job of bringing workers along in their journey given the inherent benefit that additive manufacturing can have for their work. In this way, they are continuously engaging their staff and using them as thought-partners, rather than enemies, in their creation of more efficient processes driven by technological changes. In this sense, one interesting focus BMW needs to have is in rolling out these solutions and policies in a way that is educational and also motivational for workers.

  13. Although I respect the use of 3D printing in tool fabrication, I don’t think it should be valued quite as highly. I designed and had manufactured hundreds of jigs in my last job, and we used both 3D printing and CNC’ed aluminum. Although 3D printing certainly has is place, for things such as shop aids or mock ups, the low quality and survivability of the 3D printed parts were a consistent issue. We found that the price difference to go from a high quality 3D printed part to an aluminum part was only an additional 20%, and the reduction in QA findings immense. In addition, many prototyping companies such as Protolabs, etc. can get you the CnC’ed part in approximately the same amount of time.

  14. Vehicles require high structural strength to reduce harm during accidents. 3D printed structures or components may still lack such physical endurance. As a result, production could focus on the components that do not need to operate under stress such as plastic trims.

  15. Well-written article and raises interesting arguments on both sides of the use of 3D printing in the automotive industry. The mobility industry must become more affordable to improve quality of life globally, and certain applications of this technology may enable change. For instance, the use of 3D printing for repairs (e.g., producing spare parts locally using blueprint design vs. shipping parts from Germany) can reduce costs. However, safety is also critical and I’m still concerned by the quality of 3D printed products.

  16. In considering the supply chain, I do not believe additive manufacturing will reduce the number of players within the supply chain. As described in our previous TOM case Fuyayo Glass, the company itself is also looking to innovate and consider the next step within glass technology. BMW will want to spend its time focusing on the body build, safety and design of their vehicles, and can still outsource the multiple pieces of the supply chain out. Even more interesting is understanding how this will allow for customization and speed of new models being created and delivery.

  17. Fascinating to think that the future of supply chains can be disintermediated due to additive manufacturing. My main question for these newly printed BMW tools would be whether their use time/longevity is the same as the more traditionally made tools. Certainly they bring advantage on ease of testing new tools, but can they be put under the same duress for the same amount of time?

  18. Great job and super interesting case-study! I really wonder why additive manufacturing is not more spread in the spare parts market. There are some parts with very low turnover that are hard to get in some more distant locations, but that could be locally produced at a low cost. Spare parts distributors or retailers could own the machines to further reduce costs.

  19. On my experience, the practical application of additive manufacturing is still limited despite the potential that is clear and huge. I think we are in the very beginning of the technology lifecycle when it’s still not economically viable, but the long-term investments already pushed it to the level, where the first promising applications appear.

  20. This article does a great job in listing the benefits of additive manufacturing but also highlights its threat in terms of human resources. It is true, as with ML/AI, that these automated technologies with remove the need for labor and would require more skilled employees who can program systems. As the technology advances and becomes faster, more custom needs from the end user can be taken into account, and that is how companies would try to differentiate themselves. This will create a shift in the manufacturing industry from supply-chain focus to mostly design.

  21. Very interesting article! When thinking about the future of automobile manufacturers and the impact additive manufacturing will have, we can see that the main benefits are in aiding workers complete their jobs more safely or more efficiently. This seems to show that the jobs of these workers are not being taken away or replaced by the additive manufacturing innovations, but rather the workers’ efficiency is increasing. For this reason, I believe that manufacturing jobs are still safe, despite the large increase in additive manufacturing technology in the auto industry.

  22. Very much loved this article. I’m intrigued by the topic of 3D printing, but never thought about the safety benefits that can come from it, very insightful! One area I would have loved to read more about is 3D printing impact on plastic demand globally (which entails a higher demand for petrochemicals). Are we going to see growth in petrochemicals as more manufacturers going to use 3D printing? and what about the transportation (for shipping) sector? Distributors, and storage houses? I think the industry overall is on the cliff of a radical change.

  23. HI Saggitariutt Jefferspin, thank you for such an interesting article regarding BMW and additive manufacturing!! It was fascinating to read how BMW is taking advantage of this trend and how it is reducing costs for the company. My concern here is around liability – obviously, auto companies take on a lot of inherent risk associated with their products and can often be liable for their manufacturing standards, their specs, etc. How will this risk shift in the light of 3D printing? If there is an error in the printing, will it be the 3D printer’s fault? Or still the auto manufacturer’s fault? Or is this blame distributed in some other way thanks to this new technology that is introducing new potential machine errors but reducing human errors?

  24. It is so exciting to look forward to a world of 3D printed cars, given that there is a lot of dependence on suppliers. This will disrupt the supply chain industry, and focus will shift towards designers and customized cars that cater to each customer requirement (just as in case of shoes). However, a critical issue here is, how close to a consumer can these facilities be set up? How feasible and scalable is this solution? And where will the suppliers go?

  25. I enjoyed learning about how additive manufacturing can add to not only the production of a company’s core product (in this case, cars), but also help enhance the process of production (the example of finger stoppers was very interesting and illuminating). Previously I was commenting on what industries could most benefit from the customization feature additive manufacturing can yield, but the second point you raise on process improvement and safety procedures has universal reach across industries.

  26. Very interesting article and concept! I’m actually curious how additive manufacturing will impact the used car and automotive maintenance industries as well as new-builds. Will we ever have the ability to manufacture our own replacement parts for our cars, or go to a local 3D printing shop that can manufacture nearly any part for any car on the road? How will this impact new car sales? Although I think it’s still many years down the road, I’m interested to see how this plays out!

  27. Great article Saggitariutt! I am a car enthusiast and have owned several BMWs in my life. After reading your article and reviewing your cover picture (the BMW I8), I do have one concern about BMW’s approach. Many car enthusiast want their car to be 100% handmade (this pertains to very high-end vehicles, hence the Lamborghini Reventon, Austin Martin One, etc.). The reason being that when a car is handmade their are slight differences in engine performance from each car produced. This is valued because it adds a level of uniqueness to a mass produced car. BMW is trying to compete in this extreme luxury space by offering the I8, which looks similar to a car that costs 250k or more. BMW should use technology to help them produce most of their cars, but may want to consider leveraging manual labor when producing high-end performance vehicles.

  28. Great read! Your points made me wonder about what the future of car updates might look like. Tesla, for example, has revolutionized the driving experience by being able to transform how you interact with your car, and what its capabilities are, by pushing out new software to their vehicles. With the low cost and ease of manufacturing enabled by 3D printing, I wonder if the cars can be physically updated in much the same manner. As you touched upon in your article, it could completely change how product recalls or new product innovations (etc.) are addressed.

  29. Great post! I really enjoyed reading about additive manufacturing in the auto industry. I love the angle of how this technology isn’t just advancing the business for the consumer but it’s also bettering the lived of the people working in manufacturing facilities.

    I understand from your article that growth in this area is limited to the current capabilities of 3D printers. Do you think that technology will evolve faster in the future? If it does, will we reach a point where more auto manufacturers can build custom cars, offsetting the costs by pricing at a premium?

  30. After reading this article it seems that 3-D printing is certainly going to be the go-to manufacturing in the future. As with all new technologies, I imagine there will be rapid development in the coming years and would find it interesting to ponder where 3-D manufacturing could go. I could see a world where someone can custom design a car and the entire thing is printed out of a 3-D printer autonomously with a minimal assembly line or human labor component. Will these printing machines at some point become so sophisticated that more affluent people will have them in their homes and be able to print out whatever they want whenever they want? Perhaps, we’ll see.

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