Additive manufacturing or 3D printing within the automotive industry has been heralded as a revolutionary technology for original equipment manufacturers’ (OEMs) supply chains and vehicle design. Whether OEMs believe 3D printing is ushering in the “third industrial revolution” by eliminating long complex supply chains and opening the door to mass customization over mass production; or that additive manufacturing is a complimentary tool capable of reducing design and development cycles through rapid prototyping and faster design iteration, the adoption of 3D printing into an organization is not a light switch event and will take time to prepare for and benefit from.
How Additive Manufacturing is Impacting the Automotive Industry
Additive manufacturing in the automotive industry has been around since the 1990s focusing on rapid prototyping parts during the development cycle. With improvements in cost, materials, printing processes, and printer size, the adoption within automotive companies has grown rapidly. A decade ago, Ford Motor Company produced only 4,000 prototype parts utilizing 3D printing. This number has exploded to over 100,000 prototypes annually with 3D printing becoming a crucial part of Ford’s development cycle.
With the wide spread adoption of 3D printing, Ford has been able to greatly reduce the time and improve flexibility within its design and development processes. Ellen Lee, Ford’s additive manufacturing research technical leader, estimates the time required to produce prototype parts has reduced by one-tenth due to 3D printing. Traditionally, prototyping would require the design, fabrication, and manufacturing of a single part to be tested and validated. This process traditionally could take half-a-year and cost $500,000 to produce a single design; with 3D printing this process takes days and cost $1,000. In addition, 3D printing removes the need for machine tooling to produce the initial part. Iterative designs also do not require the costly and timely tooling. This allows multiple designs to be fabricated and tested in parallel and within days of the initial design which traditionally takes half a year for a single iteration of part.
How Ford is Approaching Additive Manufacturing
Building an organization with the expertise to build and analyze vehicles which utilize 3D printed parts is not a light switch event. Organizations must prepare their engineering design and materials functions for 3D printing. Component designs and material properties will be dependent on printing processes. Organizations must hire employees to handle the new challenges that arise from additive manufacturing. To prepare for future innovations in additive manufacturing, Ford has been increasing the use of additive manufacturing within its product development cycle. 3D printing has become a crucial piece of Ford’s product development.
Ford has ambitious goals to continue its momentum in applying 3D printing to its products. Partnering with multiple 3D printing companies, Ford has developed a diverse tool box of 3D printer technologies spanning almost all current printing technologies for metal and polymer applications. One such partnership is with Stratasys, which produces large 3D printers capable of producing large interior parts such as the center console. Compared to its competitors, Ford has a wider portfolio of technology currently being tested. Current applications of this technology include large interior parts and engine components, which traditionally require much testing, validation, and iteration.
Looking forward, Ford is developing capability to use additive manufacturing to improve production tooling. 3D printing can print the expensive initial tooling used in production machining. This tooling traditionally requires a large initial cost and large volume for economy of scale. This increases the flexibility and reduces the cost in production machine which traditionally lock in designs over a product’s life.
With the automotive industry focusing on the next generation of fuel efficient and electric vehicles, additive manufacturing may play a role in reducing vehicle weight and improving fuel economy or battery range. Ford should consider the role additive manufacturing can play in weight reduction, fuel economy, or battery range of a vehicle.
The hype behind 3D printing promises a supply chain revolution and movement away from large national factories. Similar to Ford’s decade long progression in adopting additive manufacturing in its development cycle, Ford could start experimenting with 3D printing in its service organizations. While 3D printing struggles to replace current mass production processes, 3D printing may serve smaller volume vehicles such as older vehicles still on the road today. Ford could introduce 3D printed replacement parts, enabling Ford to develop the expertise it needs for a future supply chain revolution.
Ford is poised to transform its development cycle by utilizing additive manufacturing which has reduced development time and increased design flexibility. This transformation is no small feat as the automotive is ingrained with historic knowledge and design. Looking forward, how will Ford further incorporate this new technology and processes into its old wealth of knowledge and products?
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