The role of 3D printing in the automotive industry has grown inexorably over the last quarter of a century. Momentum has gathered behind the technology to such an extent that multiple reports project the global 3D printing automotive market will be worth more than £1bn (US$1.3bn) within the next five years.
The transformation that additive manufacturing (AM) has instigated has not been overnight but it has been dramatic in terms of the way numerous parts are now designed, developed and manufactured. The true success of technology such as 3D printing can, of course, only be measured in how it affects business operations, processes, service levels and—ultimately—profit.
How long will it be before showrooms have onsite 3D printers where customers can 3D print their own personalised vehicle components?
Simplifying the supply chain
One of the many consequences of the COVID-19 crisis has been a stark realisation of just how dependent businesses across a vast range of sectors have become on global and complex supply chains. The restrictions of the last six months have led to major supply chain disruptions and, as a result, increased levels of downtime. 3D printing substantially reduces the risk of such disruption and bridges supply chain gaps by allowing the manufacture of end-use parts on demand and at a single, localised site.
At the same time, reducing the number of components needed to complete an assembly decreases the number of suppliers relied on and helps eliminate the issues many manufacturers have faced in recent months. 3D printing also supports ‘lights out manufacturing’, where factories can operate with little human intervention and outside of typical working hours, using automated robots or machines to maintain production.
As well as increasing productivity, lowering costs and producing fewer errors, 3D printing proved its role as a credible production method during the peak of the recent lockdown period.
Flexible design leads to reduction in costs
One of the major business benefits of 3D printing is the optimisation and consolidation of parts. The creative freedom that 3D printing enables in comparison to traditional manufacturing methods means that parts which have typically been designed as multiple components can be consolidated into a single piece.
All the signs suggest that this trend will grow in prominence in automotive manufacturing across all tiers, saving time and money and eliminating failures on the production line. With the growing use of AM as a production tool, we will increasingly see innovative parts being designed which leverage the full benefits that this design freedom can unlock.
Just in time, rather than just in case
Marrying up the levels of demand and supply is a huge challenge for any automotive manufacturer. Managing that problem via 3D printing techniques—using a ‘just in time’ rather than ‘just in case’ approach—can again produce a significant indirect business saving.
3D printing proved its role as a credible production method during the peak of the recent lockdown period
Particularly for spare parts or obsolete models, it’s a case of switching manufacturing to an on-demand approach and providing customers with exactly what they need, only when it is needed. It could be the difference between parts being speculatively produced in months under traditional manufacturing methods opposed to on demand and within a few days utilising 3D printing.
As the media hype continues to grow, customer demand for customised parts in the automotive sector is increasing. Whether it be a personalised key fob or a gear stick with tailored names or colours, more and more end users are seeking bespoke parts when purchasing a new vehicle. How long will it be before showrooms have onsite 3D printers where customers can 3D print their own personalised vehicle components?
Adapting models to provide customers with more bespoke products is another way to future-proof the sales plan utilising 3D printing methods.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.
Mark Dickin is Additive Manufacturing & Moulding Engineering Manager at Ricoh UK Products Ltd
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