TROY, Mich.—Auto makers are not short on success stories for their use of additive manufacturing in automotive applications, but several hurdles remain when it comes to accelerating the adoption of 3D printing technology.
Volkswagen A.G., General Motors Co. and BMW A.G., for example, all have a "rich history" of using additive manufacturing to produce spare parts, tooling and other low-volume components, according to Ford Motor Co.'s Ellen Lee. But automotive has specific needs in terms of scale, cost and materials that differ from other industries, such as aerospace and medical, that also are using the technology.
Last year at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Lee outlined the Dearborn, Mich.-based auto maker's early achievements with 3D printing. With technology from Carbon Inc., a digital manufacturing startup in Silicon Valley, Ford is designing and producing 3D printed end-use parts on three production vehicles.
"At the time, I mentioned how excited I was because we were really at a tipping point," Lee said during a Jan. 14 industry briefing seminar organized by the Center for Automotive Research.
"In the years since, I think my colleagues in the automotive industry have really delivered," she said. "We've seen so many examples from virtually every single major automotive manufacturer, showing examples and innovative use cases of additive manufacturing across the board."
Common uses for 3D printing in the automotive industry typically have leaned on manufacturing aids such as jigs and fixtures, efforts to increase customization and personalization, spare parts, and low-volume, high-end vehicle applications.
Even with those efforts, the automotive industry still is at the nascent stages in using additive manufacturing for scale production, Lee said.
'Leaps and bounds'
To accelerate its adoption, there is a huge need for everyone—from auto makers and suppliers to 3D printing and technology firms—to come together pre-competitively as an industry to solve the stubborn problems that can't be deciphered alone, she said.
"Each of these successes took a significant amount of work, resources and efforts to solve some problems that might have been solved more easily as a group, as a collaboration," Lee said.
A top priority is developing standards for material and performance specifications as well as quality metrics, which will enable more process control and help drive use and economies of scale. This means working together with other organizations—again, pre-competitively, Lee said—to define those standards and test methods.
"We want to be talking about the same thing across the industry, so that we're comparing apples to apples," she said. "The old rules don't apply."
Jon Walker, automotive specialist and business development manager for industrial 3D printer maker EOS North America Inc., said production speed and part costs are among the top barriers to more widespread use of additive manufacturing in the automotive industry.
But progress has been made.