General Motors Co. is pledging to only have zero-emission vehicles in its fleet by 2035. This is motivated by bans on new gas-powered cars entering the marketplace and an ever-growing emphasis on reducing emissions. Add to that events like President Biden’s executive order requiring the government’s fleet of nearly 645,000 federal vehicles to switch to electric points and it adds up to one thing: there’s a big push for EVs in the automotive industry.
According to the Edison Electric Institute, not only are electric vehicle sales expected to surpass 3.5 million per year within the next decade, but more than $2.6 billion is being invested in ensuring the infrastructure exists to enable mass adoption for EVs by consumers. Moreover, it predicts an almost 3X increase in the number of fully electric models available by 2023.
Industrial 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), has shown similar growth, shifting from being primarily a prototyping technology to becoming a widely accepted production tool. Recent reports estimate the global AM market to grow by 14.4 percent by 2027, with a $26.7 billion valuation.
As automotive OEMs turn their attention toward EV development, the inherent capabilities of the AM process make it a natural fit to support EV production—and now is the time for the automotive industry to make that pivot.
There are at least four ways that AM can contribute to building EVs.
1) Lighter parts help extend battery life.
Lightweighting has been a hot topic in the automotive industry for years now and will be even more important with EV development. While EVs are already lighter without an internal combustion engine, any bit of weight saved or improved distribution of weight on its axles helps prolong battery life. The key, however, is to create lighter-weight vehicles without sacrificing part quality or safety, which is where 3D printing can help.
Additive manufacturing is a truly digital, design-focused process, one that enables greater levels of customization and the creation of intricate, complex structures unattainable with conventional manufacturing techniques. Redesigning parts with organic geometries often found in nature, for instance, can eliminate material from the part—reducing the weight of the vehicle—while maintaining (and sometimes improving) the structural integrity needed for safety.
AM also offers the ability to condense multiple components into a solid piece that requires less or no assembly. Instead of having several parts fitted or welded together, creating structurally weak points in the design, manufacturers can create a single 3D printed component that is physically stronger and lighter weight.
2) More material options and better thermal capabilities.
Industrial 3D printing sometimes gets knocked for having a limited selection of available materials to print with. This is simply not true. In fact, the selection of materials for 3D printing—particularly polymers—has expanded significantly over the past several years and continues to grow rapidly. Custom materials with specific mechanical properties needed for certain uses can also be formulated.
The vast availability of AM materials opens the door for automotive manufacturers to transition making some components with polymers instead of metal, leading to further lightweighting without sacrificing strength, quality, or safety. At the same time, the thermal capabilities of AM materials are a game-changer for electric vehicles. EV batteries are notoriously tricky to keep under optimal conditions. For instance, take these findings from Battery University:
“The life of a Li-ion battery is prolonged when operating at a mild temperature. The EV battery should be warmed up to a comfortable temperature of around 25°C (77°F) for charging and driving. This is in contrast to storing or parking that should be at 10°C (50°F). Charging and operating Li-ion at low temperature causes stress, a phenomenon that does not apply equally to other chemistries.”
Additively producing encasings and heat exchangers helps in temperature regulation, providing high performance with a lower degree of machinery work and faster development cycles. As an example, flame-retardant polyamides and GmbH-certified Blue Card plastics are excellent for applications with flame retardant requirements for use around the battery or electronics.
3) Better value in low-volume production with quicker speed to market.
Despite commitments from OEMs to ramp up EV development and production, the change-over isn’t going to happen overnight. There’s likely to be significant transition periods across the automotive industry and with consumers as EVs become more prominent and adoption quickens.
With lower demand, the value of using 3D printing over a traditional technique like injection molding becomes greater. The sweet spot for AM is typically less than 100,000 parts. Any level of production below that threshold is usually more economical to produce via additive manufacturing, while anything over this figure makes sense for traditional techniques.
Keep in mind this isn’t a hard and fast rule. The complexity of the design, materials used, and the evolving capabilities of industrial 3D printers can impact the economics of production.
The other great future is that as EV volumes increase, the productivity of AM machines should follow. Today, in low-volume production, AM wins hands down. In five years, with technology like LPF, higher production quantities might be more cost-effective with AM.
Additive manufacturing also doesn’t require cumbersome tools or mold revisions, so the time and cost for production changeover are eliminated. In the time it takes to make one iteration with traditional manufacturing, more than 20 iterations can be made with industrial 3D printing via a revised CAD file sent to a computer and printed.
4) Spare parts and digital warehouses will help ramp-up EV production.
With AM, manufacturers can better connect the physical supply chain with a digital thread, managing products more efficiently from concept to end-of-life. Production can be distributed to any location with digital manufacturing systems in place by merely sending a file, enabling a more efficient and sustainable supply chain.
OEMs can also eliminate costly warehousing and inventory when it comes to housing spare parts, replacing them with digital twins printed on demand. Optimizing part designs for traditional manufacturing during high-demand phases is another benefit, allowing additive-optimized files for the same part to be 3D printed as a spare.
However, most notably are the sheer number of new players in the electric vehicle scene. These new entrants don’t have the 100-year supply chain to shackle them down. Meanwhile, legacy automakers face new challenges that haven’t occurred in their history. Both scenarios open the supply chain to starting with AM. That will make the future EV supply chain more agile than anything we can imagine compared to the integrated circuit supply chain.
Every organization is unique and will have a different journey implementing and leveraging additive manufacturing. However, some common areas need to be addressed for a business to successfully get “AM ready.”
Focus on incremental innovations: Bringing on 3D printing is a total digital transformation, and it’s not as easy as buying a printer and flipping a switch. To integrate it successfully, don’t seek to create the newest or world-changing innovation. Start small by looking at current products or processes that can be optimized through AM and will bring the greatest value.
Build up internal knowledge: Efforts to implement 3D printing capabilities begin well before any production occurs. Fully exploring the technology means having a solid understanding of the pain points and solutions that will affect every department and workflow. Part of this process means ensuring people throughout the organization have in-depth knowledge of AM and can work together fluidly.
Leadership buy-in: Every AM strategy involves an end-to-end reassessment of the design process, manufacturing philosophy, and complete supply and value chains. This rethinking is bolstered by having the entire organization bought in, including executives who can champion the efforts.
Look beyond cost-per-part: Quantify the cost advantage of 3D printing by looking at the entire value structure around it. Other savings are often more challenging to capture at first glance but are more economical in the long run. For instance, consider whether the overall package makes a product more competitive in performance, reduces waste, or simplifies the supply chain.
Scaling throughout the organization: Additive manufacturing is an agile technology built to move quickly and scale rapidly. The first applications may be modest, but this upfront work helps subsequent iterations to go smoother and quicker.
Create Centers of Excellence: An internal Center of Excellence functions as an educational arm of AM, continuing to train teams working with the technology directly and educating those in the broader organization. This not only broadens expertise but also helps uncover new opportunities for future 3D printing applications.
Additive manufacturing is the only fully digital manufacturing process in the world, making it possible to increase factory flexibility and produce lower-demand parts more cost-effectively. As such, now is the time for OEMs to transition to AM to advance development and adoption of EVs. And, while the journey is complex, the technology is better, and the process easier to integrate than ever before.
Jon Walker is a business development manager for EOS, a provider of industrial 3D printing technologies and services. For more information, visit www.eos.info.
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