Design Engineering

Additive manufacturing in automotive: Challenges and opportunities

By Andrew Snook   

Additive Manufacturing Materials Automotive 3D printing Additive Manufacturing AMUG

Material costs are a significant barrier for additive manufacturing’s growth in the automotive sector. (Photo: © Pairat / Adobe Stock)

Manufacturers across almost every industry are excited about the rise in popularity of additive manufacturing and all the potential advantages it could offer. In the automotive sector, where every vehicle requires tens of thousands of parts, there are many potential applications for the technology. That said, there are also many barriers.

To learn more about the opportunities and challenges that exist for additive manufacturing in the automotive sector, Design Engineering sat down with Thomas Sorovetz, a director with the Additive Manufacturing Users Group (AMUG).

Sorovetz has been with Stellantis (formerly FCA, LLC) for more than 37 years, including 24 years as supervisor of vehicle engineering development; rapid prototyping development; wood; plastic; CNC; and carbon fiber shops. He has over 37 years of experience in automotive design and engineering and more than 30 years of experience in rapid prototyping/additive manufacturing. Sorovetz was the recipient of the AMUG Distinguished INnovative Operator (DINO) Award; the AMUG President’s Award; and the AMUG Distinguished Service Award for his 25-plus years on the AMUG Executive Board.

 

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Barriers to growth

While additive manufacturing has existed in the automotive sector since the late 1980s, companies are still adapting to its use.

“To get a vehicle to use your additive plastic parts in the cockpit, which is where everybody sits, there’s several Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that are required for testing. One of the problems becomes that none of the materials from the build processes are isotropic – they’re not the same,” Sorovetz explains. “If you injection mold, you have that single crystal structure. If you’re doing it with fibre, they’re all fairly directional. With additive, it depends on where it’s at in the build platform, what angle, how it’s rotated, is it standing up; and you get differences of not only build and material properties overall, you also get different test results from those.”

If a company were to require 1,000 pieces of a specific part over the next 12 months, for example, those parts would need to be produced by one specific 3D printing machine with no changes, which can become cumbersome and complicated, Sorovetz explains. Adding to the challenge with this kind of production is that the photopolymer, monofilament line or powdered plastic being used cannot be altered at any point by the supplier.

“You need to sit down with the manufacturer of that material and say, ‘I’m currently using your material ABC XYZ for this product. I want to continue using it and I need to create X parts for over the next X number of years. We need to enter into a contract that says that you are not going to change any piece of the recipe of ABC XYZ. And if you make any modifications, you’ll still be creating the old recipe, because I’ve already tested and certified and standardized this material,’” he says. “If they say they need to switch because their photo initiator company is no longer supplying the photo initiator or decide they could find this material elsewhere as part of the raw materials because it’s less expensive, that could change the entire chemistry. So, now you start from ground zero.”

Material costs are also currently a significant barrier for additive manufacturing’s growth in the automotive sector.

“From the metals standpoint, I could buy one kilogram of aluminum A356, for example, at a rough estimate of $10 a kilo for my sand casting. To get a kilo of AlSi10Mg, it might be $60 or $80 a kilogram. So, how do I build parts using that when I can cast the part and it’s going to be a lot less expensive and a lot faster,” Sorovetz says.

Another hurdle that the additive manufacturing sector needs to navigate compared to more traditional options are costly service contracts that could act as a deterrent to potential customers.

“When you buy a machine tool—I go to Haas and purchase a CNC machine, or I go to LeBlond or Minster for a stamping press—they train you and your skilled workers on how to repair the systems. Only if you have a problem do you need to call up the service guy to have them come out,” Sorovetz says. “In today’s industry with additive, the service contract is a big revenue generator, just like the material. Whereas with machining tools, they don’t care whose collets you’re using as long as they fit the head. They don’t care who’s cutting tools, cutting inserts, cutting liquid, that you use, as long as it meets their qualifications and standards and fits their machine, which are pretty standard across the platform. So, because of that the prices are down really low.”

This differs from the additive manufacturing sector, where there are fewer purchasing options for customers for the various materials required.

“With additive, let’s go with stereolithography, you have three or four companies that manufacture the photo polymer. You’re sort of a contained company now of who you’re going to buy from and what you’re going to purchase, and how much it is. That’s a problem,” Sorovetz says. “When you’re buying an ABS type of pellet material for injection molding, that might be three, maybe even seven cents a pound. By the train loads, it’s still a lot cheaper than one hundred dollars a kilogram for a photo polymer, or a spool of monofilament for any of the additive, or a kilo of the powdered plastic for your sintering systems. So, that is a big thing.”

He believes one solution that would help the industry grow would be for the manufacturers of the 3D printing machines to allow for a wider range of materials to be used in the equipment, as long as those materials meet or exceed the requirements for that machine.

“If it doesn’t meet the requirements and you decide to put it in and it clogs the head, or you keep getting build crashes, and now the blades out of alignment and you can’t fix it because it bent the recoder arm, then you’re willing to pay whatever that price is to have everything replaced and repaired,” Sorovetz says. “But that’s part of the reason why when you’re dealing with these million-dollar pieces of equipment, automotive companies—Tier 1, Tier 2 and OEMs—are a lot slower to react.”

Sorovetz believes one solution that would help the industry grow would be for the manufacturers of the 3D printing machines to allow for a wider range of materials to be used in the equipment, as long as those materials meet or exceed the requirements for that machine. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Additive opportunities

While automotive parts have been a difficult space for additive manufacturing to grow, there are certainly opportunities for production line parts, where the same stringent regulatory requirements are not present.

“For production line stuff—end-of-arm tooling, fixtures, gauges—it’s taking off fairly quickly in the automotive industry,” Sorovetz says. “I can take an FDM (fused deposition modeling) machine and stick it on the shop floor at one of the plants, and all of a sudden there’s been a change of where we want to locate the logo or the brand name of the vehicle… we could go ahead and redesign that, send it over to the machine on the plant floor and they could pull it off the FDM machine and start using it as is, because the ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) isn’t going to scratch the fresh paint. And you can get it overnight.”

Another big opportunity lies in the ability to create replacement parts quickly on the plant floor, Sorovetz notes.

“Being on the plant floor where you could hurry up and make changes to end-of-arm robotics if you broke something, you could make a quick part for it overnight, that’s huge,” he says.

One example of a great application of additive manufacturing on the plant floor was Vince Anewenter’s entrance into the AMUG Technical Competition a few years ago, where he showcased a fixture designed for one of his customers.

“He had a split line in it, so if you were to knock it off the table, drop it or mistreat it, it’s going to fracture,” Sorovetz recalls. “People were asking, ‘Why do you want that?’ It’s because with a steel tool, if I accidentally knock it off the table and then it gets twisted and out of shape, I’m putting it back on my table. I’m just going to say, ‘It works, it’s fine.’ You might not figure that out until three shifts from now when something’s not fitting someplace, and no one’s going to own up to dropping it because it’s a $5,000, $15,000 or $30,000 fixture. Whereas if it shatters for $200, the guy could reach into the cabinet, grab a new one, set it down and continue working.”

While auto parts have been a difficult space for additive manufacturing to grow, there are certainly opportunities for production line parts, where the same stringent regulatory requirements are not present. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Where smaller numbers of parts need to be produced, like in niche vehicles, for example, Sorovetz sees room for more adaptation of additive manufacturing technologies.

“With Chrysler we have the SRT brand, which is Street and Racing Technology, like the Dodge Challenger, Hellcat, Demon, and the Hellephant Engine. It’s perfect for those cars because you do 3,500 or 4,000 of those annually, so you can meet those requirements. And it’d be a lot better than having to create hundreds of thousands of dollars of new tooling to do the same thing that we could do with additive.”

To make some of these opportunities for additive manufacturing a reality in the automotive sector, several factors need to be met.

“First and foremost, I think that the materials have to come way down in price. I think that the operators and owners of the equipment need to be trained on how to take care of the machines. And those parts should be common parts that you could call up and get from Grainger, or wherever the case may be,” Sorovetz says.

Another important factor is increasing the build speed of the equipment.

“If you could have a robotic arm set up to grab the part and it puts it on a different platform, and the door gets shut. And then by sequence, it says okay, everything’s there, and starts to build again… then you can run lights out, seven days a week,” he says. “The automotive industry shuts down over Christmas and on holidays. If you know that when you come back on the third of January, you need 700 of these metal parts, as long as you have enough feedstock for it, and you have the robotics all set up to pick and place everything, you can come back to a room full of parts. That is awesome.”

 

Andrew Snook is a freelance writer.

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