German car manufacturers have been using 3D printing for decades. Many have extensive laboratories and have been conducting large-scale research and product development for many years. Their proximity to early leading service bureaus and 3D printing original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), as well as the enviable capabilities of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes, built on this lead until it seemed insurmountable. In addition, many of these companies leveraged the real-world manufacturing experience of 3D printing through the extensive use of 3D printed parts in F1 and custom high-end car customization. In the US and Asia there were crickets. Recently, a rather shady contender – albeit one of the world’s top two automakers – threw its hat in the ring for technology leadership in 3D printing. The candidate was GM.
Choke on my coffee kind of moment, that was. GM recently told the world that it used 60,000 flexible “spoiler closeout seal” parts using HP MJF for the 2022 Tahoe model. The company had them produced through GKN’s Forecast 3D unit, using BASF Forward AM Ultrasint TPU 1. GM also relied on AMT’s vapor smoothing technology to finish the parts.
It is refreshing that a car company came out and showed the world a case where 3D printing was used for the fabrication of vehicular bridges. It’s been happening for a few decades, but nobody talks about it. Kudos to GM for its transparency/marketing campaign. It is also noticeable that the part is flexible, something that additive manufacturing has traditionally not been good at.
The company also announced that it will use more than 100 3D printed parts, both metal and polymer, in its new Cadillac CELESTIQ model. GM invested $81 million to produce the car at its Global Technical Center at its Additive Industrialization Center.
I like that GM is fighting for 3D printing supremacy because it will only make the Germans work even harder. I also want to contrast his approach with the path that Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen are taking. These companies have focused on in-depth technical and process knowledge, through internal capacity improvement. They have been working on materials, automation, post-processing, qualifying methodologies and more for years. Meanwhile, late in the party, which doesn’t start until about 2020, GM orders 60,000 parts at a service. I’m sure the German firms have a deeper AM knowledge, but if GM can lean on services to get the right parts and press releases out the door to steal them, then this should be a worthwhile approach.
Auto parts 3D printing without Powder Bed Fusion
Similarly, SOLIZE uses HP systems to make parts for Nissan’s NISMO cars. This could mean that we could see other automakers without much AM knowledge coming out quickly with components via services. I’m surprised Chinese companies have also been so quiet given the heavy push the country has on 3D printing. You could easily imagine Eplus 3D, BLT or Farsoon presenting 3D printed car items soon. At the same time, emerging technologies such as metal bonding jet and bonded metal extrusion could make even more automotive parts possible.
Germany’s heavy investment in powder bed fusion also slowed German adoption of 3D printing and made the technology unnecessarily expensive. Powder bed has a lot of margins on materials and machines as well as a very high cost base. It is also very complex, which means that it will take companies several years to deploy it. Due to the fact that it is an advanced technology that looks like it could work in a factory, companies are taking years to industrialize it. This has led to a long time in the woods for many automotive applications in Germany.
Now, with binderjet, lower part costs could be achievable, especially with superior automation. Software work would be required to qualify new components and the technology is best for libraries of qualified items, rather than many unique ones, but there is potential there. Bonded metal 3D printing with simple material extrusion systems can also provide low-cost components for some geometries. Markforged and BASF will certainly take such technologies to the next level.
At the same time, some high-performance polymers, especially polyamides, could promote the penetration of 3D printing in automotive parts. This can be very cost effective if the industry works on reliable material extrusion machines. The significant sums invested in powder bed fusion metals and polymers should also lead to some new components being printed to scale.
Where are car parts 3D printed?
Service platforms that want to run production, like MakerVerse, could further deploy parts without requiring too much capital, like services like Morf3D, Azoth3D, and Sintavia. But where is the future of 3D printing in car parts?
It seems like the right time to move from prototypes to end-use components. We do indeed expect many more companies to 3D print car parts in the future. Will they print them through services? Or will they ask their existing Tier 1, 2 and 3 partners to print these items? While automotive OEMs have knowledge and experience with 3D printing, their suppliers currently do not. These vendors also have little financial room to make deep, imaginative investments in 3D printing.
Will car companies start 3D printing their own parts? For some of these components it would make sense. OEMs could offer high-quality, custom-made items, from which they derive all margins. Or they may have the capacity to quickly perform bridge production or create new models in-house. It remains to be seen who will 3D print auto parts and where.
Which car parts are 3D printed?
Which parts will be made for the car industry with 3D printing is also becoming a bit of a mystery. We’ve seen custom SLA, titanium, FDM, visible, hidden, and weight-saving parts, as well as integrated functionality parts. Everyone plays with different materials, technologies and applications.
Aside from jigs and fixtures, mold tooling is an obvious area. Mass-custom polymer parts also seem obvious. In some cases we could also see integrated, weight-saving elements with a low number of parts. Directed Energy Deposition (DED) and wire arc AM-like processes for chassis and larger components would be very exciting, but seem very far off.
The big opportunity lies in the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) market for the millions of automotive parts worldwide. It is also in the design of essential performance-enhancing items on new car platforms. In addition, we must realize that there is still a huge gap between the cost of car parts made with other production methods and what the 3D printing industry charges for its parts. This needs to be resolved to move forward.
The one thing I like most about the CELESTIQ is the fact that GM will hand-build the limited edition car itself, at its Global Technical Center. We often see 3D printing projects stalled because people running production don’t want to spend time introducing a new technology into the manufacturing operations. Building this car by hand allows GM to learn about 3D printing parts and install them on cars in a defined and walled way.
In this case, AM doesn’t have to trample over the company’s many fiefdoms. Additive is only performed for components on this specific series of cars. What I think is potentially very important is what could happen if GM were very effective with this.
Car companies make little money on volume cars, but do well on high-end options and fully-loaded expensive vehicle lines. OEMs also have ancillary businesses building custom cars, such as Bentley Mulliner, Porsche Individual and Mercedes Guard. These are low-volume, but very profitable.
Ideally, a manufacturer would like to make customization commonplace through large-scale, profitable, one-of-a-kind parts that are sold to millions of people. To do this, you need a lot of trust and institutional change. This situation is ideal, but also extremely difficult to implement.
Meanwhile, the ultimate custom car is the one-off concept car. This is a frighteningly expensive vehicle, costing millions, but showing design futures. Concept cars are technical toys for the whole world to see. Other car brands sell low-volume supercars that cost $1 million or more.
So, what if GM started making hand-built cars in-house in small numbers all the time? The company reportedly wants to charge $300,000 for the CELESTIQ. In fact, if the company uses 3D printing and additional technologies, it can be very profitable.
Instead of losing money on a concept car, GM could make a working vehicle accessible in a limited number each year. These can be very profitable for the company while courting journalists and car enthusiasts alike. The cars could create a halo effect for the brand in a manageable and profitable way.
I’m not sure yet if this is the company’s intention. The CELESTIQ could be a one-off testbed to get familiar with 3D printing. But imagine the marketing excitement you could create by making completely crazy driveable cars with your brand for spectators on the street. Imagine customers paying upfront for your design exploration, generating brand excitement in the process. Imagine what you could do financially if you sold 300 cars for $1.5 million each year to car collectors? Such an approach would put 3D printing to good use.
AM is the key technology that allows a company to produce many parts for such a car, in addition to a large amount of molds and tools. Imagine if the CELESTIQ was not just a one time but a future method of creating buzz, excitement and finding out what the world wanted. Then for GM $300,000 each it would be an ultimate marketing tool, a cost-effective marketing tool and a showcase that rolls around. And for collectors? The CELESTIQ is the limit.
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