Additive Manufacturing, better known colloquially as 3D-printing, is a hot current topic and is regularly nominated as the technology trend of the year. What is the 3D-printer capable of today and how can it be usefully applied – beyond prototype construction and the do-it-yourself projects at home – in the automotive aftersales environment?
3D-Printing in 2018: What is possible today?
Alongside the formative manufacturing processes, such as casting and forging, subtractive manufacturing processes, such as drilling and milling, form the two pillars of classical manufacturing technology. 3D-printing makes it possible to combine both processes with just one “click”.
In contrast to classical manufacturing, where the final contours of complex components are often created retrospectively through a process of removing material from a cast part, the 3D-printer creates the form of the final component by building up layers. The basis is provided by digital (CAD) construction plans, which serve the printing equipment as a blueprint for the geometric parameters to be printed. Often, the only question that remains open is the choice of material. The options are already almost limitless today. Depending on the user’s personal design and the desired component properties, materials such as plastics, metals, carbon, glass, ceramic or even a combination of various materials can be printed.
However, an important limiting factor for 3D-printing is the number of pieces to be produced. To date, 3D-printing has demonstrated its greatest advantage in the production of single items or small series. When it comes to the production of a large quantity of items, classical manufacturing methods prove to make more sense economically. So for the time being, this remains the method of choice in the area of mass production.
The following diagram illustrates which components, i.e. component properties, are especially suitable for 3D-printing processes – both from a technical and economic perspective.
For a long time, the automotive industry used the 3D-printer primarily for the fast and flexible production of prototypes in vehicle development. Today, the technology of additive manufacturing is used to produce tools, assembly aids, components in small series and even almost complete vehicles. It was used, for example, to produce the roof mounts of the BMW i8 Roadster convertible, making it possible to realise the desired geometry and achieve weight advantages (cf. BMW, 2018). The American automobile manufacturer Local Motors is specialised in the small series production, and has already presented two vehicles whose complete frame was created by the 3D-printer: the “Strati” car and the shuttle bus “Olli” (cf. Local Motors, 2017).
3D-Printing in Automotive Aftersales of the Future
NTT DATA is also exploring potential scenarios for the current and future application of 3D- printing, especially in the area of automotive aftersales. The two most significant areas of application are the manufacture of replacement parts and the printing of personalised automobile parts. For the OEM, i.e. the car dealership, the additive manufacture of spare parts obviously provides logistic advantages. Parts that are rarely ordered can be printed “on demand”, which saves both storage capacity and costs. The decentral supply of 3D-services to groups of dealerships is also conceivable. Spare parts could be produced on location and so avoid long transport distances and high delivery costs.
The OEM must only provide the digital construction plan – for example, in a cloud. The supply of spare parts for old vehicles, for which the necessary tools are no longer available, can also be guaranteed by 3D-printing. The customer also has the option of personalising his vehicle after the purchase, by printing suitable interior or exterior elements according to his own personal design.
A possible scenario that lies in the more distant future is an automated 3D-printing repair service. Here, defective vehicle parts could be identified by a robot equipped with a 3D-scanner and 3D-printer, and then replaced or restored through additive manufacturing processes.
In conclusion, it is evident that the potential of the 3D-printer opens up new possibilities for automotive aftersales, especially in the area of spare parts. The extent to which the scenarios described here gain significance in the future, i.e. find broader application, depends on the further development of this technology and developments in the changing automobile industry.
- BMW (2018). https://www.bmw.com/de/innovation/3d-druckerei.html. Last accessed on 31.08.2018.
- Local Motors (2017). https://localmotors.com/2017/05/15/worlds-first-3d-printed-shuttle-olli/. Last accessed on 31.08.2018.
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