Xavier Llobera explains how the automotive industry is using additive manufacturing to increase performance and save costs
The automotive industry is rapidly becoming more “electrified” as OEMs keep announcing new electric vehicles (EV), hybrid and pure, every month. Nearly 400 new EV models will be launched in the next eight years, and it is estimated that by 2035—in just over 10 years—50% to 80% of all sales will be electric vehicles. Significantly, some OEMs plan to reconfigure their product lines to produce only electric vehicles, as announced by Volvo, Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen, Stellantis, and many others. Overall, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates cumulative sales of light-duty electric vehicles (LDV) of 55-72 million by 2025.
Consequently, automotive OEMs are under pressure to accelerate their product development cycles to keep up with the competition, including start-ups that are extremely agile. In this context, additive manufacturing can be an extraordinary ally, as it can streamline all phases of the product life cycle, from prototyping to bridge production and spare parts.
But it’s not all about speed. Additive manufacturing can also bring significant performance enhancements and cost savings.
Thanks to the design freedom enabled by automotive 3D printing applications —as opposed to the design constraints of injection moulding—more complex geometrics can be manufactured, resulting in more efficient cooling or heating sub-systems can be enabled.
Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software can determine the optimal geometry that will maximise mass flow and minimise pressure drop, which, in most cases, will result in complex, organic shapes that cannot be fabricated with injection moulding. In critical sub-systems, such as battery cooling, optimising efficiency will increase the life and performance of batteries.
Cost Savings Through Improved Performance
The use of infilled lattices, only possible with additive manufacturing, allows easier heat or cold ventilation inside seats for passengers’ comfort. Thus, one compressor will be enough to heat or cool both seats, as opposed to installing two. Consequently, not only will this save the cost of one compressor, but it will also decrease energy consumption from the vehicle’s battery and, hence, increase its driving range.
Cost Savings Through Bridge Production
Traditionally injection moulding has been a very cost-effective manufacturing process when large volumes of identical plastic parts need to be fabricated. However, there is a dependency on tooling (i.e., moulds) that can jeopardise the tight production cycles explained above. For example, GM recently shared how additive manufacturing enabled the urgent production of 60,000 window seals for its new 2022 SUV platform. A late design change, when production was about to start, would have caused shutting down the assembly line and delaying the introduction of this SUV into the market. Instead, the first 30,000 vehicles were equipped with the 3D-printed version of this seal until the injected version arrived to continue production. This is what we call bridge production, and it saved GM a huge cost.
Increased Customer Success Through Increased Freedom Of Choice
We are in the era of customisation, where consumers expect to choose more and more aspects of their new car. However, this comes at a cost, as fragmentation of demand goes against economies of scale when using injection moulding—especially when a high upfront investment in tooling is required. Instead, in additive manufacturing, there is no tooling, which enables greater freedom of choice to consumers at no significant additional cost. For example, Stellantis recently launched the new Peugeot 308. It comes with 3D-printed interior accessories available in multiple colours and shapes to delight its customers.
Similarly, other well-known automotive brands are introducing limited editions with exclusive designs that become more economically viable thanks to additive manufacturing. This is possible with technologies like HP Multi Jet Fusion and HP Metal Jet, which deliver end-user parts that resemble injected parts and hence, meet consumers’ high expectations.
Cost savings in the assembly line
Manufacturing is an essential element in vehicle cost. Optimising the speed at which cars are assembled while increasing the ergonomics of workers, and reducing human error, can have a direct impact in the overall manufacturing P&L. In this context, car factories are adopting additive manufacturing to source and improve their jigs and fixtures and even more, 3D-printed spare parts for their machinery. Recently, a Ford factory in Valencia, Spain, reported that more than 20,000 parts were produced in just one year, mostly with HP Multi Jet Fusion technology.
In conclusion, the automotive industry is using additive manufacturing to bring increased performance to essential EV systems, enable higher customisation to their customers, and save costs in manufacturing through bridge production and improved jigs and fixtures.
Xavier Llobera is automative segment WW manager at HP 3D Printing & Digital Manufacturing