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Automotive Industry Warms to 3D Printing

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media
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Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett speaks at a media event at the company’s Advanced Manufacturing Center. The facility houses 3D printers, collaborative robots and virtual reality and augmented reality equipment. (SME Photos/Bill Koenig)

The auto industry wants to expand the use of 3D printers. Automakers such as Ford Motor Co. and BMW AG are working directly with additive manufacturers concerning deployment of the technology. Companies also are utilizing virtual and augmented reality to address manufacturing issues. And, as is the case with many other manufacturers, the auto industry wants to get the most out of Industry 4.0, where “connected” machines communicate with each other and with human operators.

At Ford’s new Advanced Manufacturing Center in the Detroit suburb of Redford, Mich., 3D printers, along with collaborative robots, are studied for ways to be used on the factory floor. The center’s virtual and augmented reality facilities are a way for Ford factories worldwide to deal with such issues as how to station production equipment on the plant floor.

Ford formed an advanced manufacturing organization in 2017, bringing together employees from across the automaker’s manufacturing operations. The group identified its site last year after an industrial company moved to another location in the Detroit area.

3D printing powers up

3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), involves printing a part layer by layer from a digital design. The technology is shifting to printing larger parts and doing more printing with various types of metals. Aerospace has been investing in additive for years because 3D printing enables new designs and has the promise of more efficient use of metals such as titanium.

However, the auto industry has larger production volumes. Until now, adoption of 3D printing by automakers and suppliers has lagged their counterparts in aerospace.

“Current applications of 3D printing are limited to tools, dies, molds, jigs, fixtures and some low-volume parts,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR). “The real hurdles to wider adoption of 3D printing in mass-produced autos and parts are cycle time, cost and sunk costs of the current stamping-, molding- and machining-based part formation processes. 3D printing has to get faster and costs have to come down considerably before we’ll see widespread, high-volume applications in the auto industry.”

Nevertheless, additive manufacturing development is underway in the auto industry.

“Advances within the technology of 3D printing in and of themselves create a series of solutions that historically have not been available,” said Mike Mikula, chief engineer of the global advanced manufacturing organization for Ford. The improvements include “the speed in which we can print and with the materials by which we can print. The introduction of carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRP), advanced plastics and certainly metal has dramatically changed the potential applications from the standpoint of what is the ‘art of possible.’

“When you combine that with increased computing capacity,” he continued, “you let the software help you design the part. It does not require the same level of engineering effort and lead time to provide you with a principal solution that meets all your requirements. So both in terms of what we can print and how fast we can print them…it makes 3D printing a very intriguing technology.

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Harold Sears of Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center displays some 3D printed parts during a recent media event. (SME Photos/Bill Koenig)

Certainly our goal here is to leverage it from the standpoint of providing our manufacturing processes with the tooling and assembly aids that they need to be more robust as well as potentially overcome some of the technology challenges associated with 3D printing.”

Previously, Ford has collaborated with Stratasys Ltd. on prototype 3D printers to produce large parts. The automaker, based in Dearborn, Mich., also is an investor, along with BMW, in Desktop Metal, an additive manufacturing company based in Burlington, Mass. Ken Washington, Ford’s chief technology officer, is on Desktop Metal’s board of directors.

Ford and BMW “know this is coming,” said Jonah Myerberg, Desktop Metal’s chief technology officer and co-founder. “They are in a hurry. It’s still a few years out from being seen throughout a vehicle.”

Myerberg said 3D printing will likely expand beyond molds and jigs, but there’s a lot of uncertainty.

“You can’t just look at one area of the vehicle,” he said. “You have to look at the entire vehicle. What we try to do is open their eyes to what we see as the key benefits of 3D printing.” The Desktop Metal executive said automakers may push down the technology to their top tier of suppliers.

“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that these engineers won’t talk about,” Myerberg said. “We only have a small picture of how our customers are going to use these printers.”

In September, HP Inc. introduced a new 3D printing technology it calls HP Metal Jet, intended for mass production of steel parts. Volkswagen AG intends to use HP Metal Jet technology to produce electric vehicles in the 2020s, according to HP. Electric vehicles have fewer moving parts than conventional internal combustion engines. As a result, EVs may be an opportunity to expand additive manufacturing in the auto industry.

Workers adjust

Efforts are underway to improve worker skills as the auto industry becomes more sophisticated.

AIDT, Alabama’s workforce training program, is trying to step up its worker training efforts as auto industry employment becomes more sophisticated. Employees at factories come to AIDT facilities in Tanner, Ala., near Huntsville for training sessions.

Alabama is home to several vehicle-assembly plants. The state also has aerospace factories. As a result, Alabama is trying to improve its manufacturing training. In January, an Alabama delegation visited the Detroit headquarters of Lightweight Innovations For Tomorrow (LIFT), the Manufacturing USA institute that brings together companies and academics to improve lightweighting technology for manufacturing.

“Alabama [is] evolving in manufacturing,” said Kristi Bain, AIDT’s assistant director.

“We have to work in an advanced manufacturing scenario,” said Ed Castle, Alabama deputy secretary of commerce in that agency’s workforce development commission. “For us, it’s a simple equation. What is the need and how do you define that need?”

Ford’s Mikula said these trends reflect how auto manufacturing is more attractive than it once was.

“It’s a really exciting place to be,” he said. “It’s a really fun place to be.”

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