The explosion in the utilization of additive manufacturing (AM) has opened wide opportunities for automotive industry. The market research from IBIS World found that a total of 86 million automobiles were produced globally in the year 2013.

In such a competitive scenario, it has become inevitable for small players in parts manufacturing sector to focus on developing cost-effective capabilities to succeed among their counterparts.

Exploiting the potential of additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping is what holds the future for OEMs and aftermarket suppliers to meet the fast changing market requirements.

Although, parts such as cooling vents, dashboards and housings are already being developed using AM technique by most manufacturers, its application is limited mainly due to a narrow choice of materials that can be used.

As such, what lies ahead for AM, is the ability to develop or 3D print the parts made up of different materials that can be produced rapidly.

Image credit: Deloitte University

The image above is from a recent research conducted by Deloitte University, predicting the future possibility of the AM technique to print most parts of a typical automobile.

The driving force behind the research on advanced materials is mainly due to the amount of advantages the AM techniques offer. The possibility to involve innovation in product development with an accelerated manufacturing process and reduction in tooling costs makes printing parts a viable choice for the automotive domain.

Several researches have been already undertaken on identifying compatibility of advanced materials with 3D printing. These studies are crucial as the use of materials today for AM technique is usually proprietary polymers. There is also a possibility to use steel alloys and titanium, but due to anisotropy caused by the layer-by-layer approach, the physical properties are not as strong as conventionally manufactured ones.

Olga S. Ivanova et al. summarized the promises and challenges of using nanotechnology in additive manufacturing, boosting the possibility of adopting this technique in automobile industry. It has been observed that using metal nanoparticles in the sintering process greatly improves part density and decreases shrinkage and distortion of the printed parts. Embedding of these nanoparticles within the polymer materials can also improve electrical conductivity in fabricated products.

Moreover, combining different nanomaterials for developing single part using AM technique would open the possibility to print complex products such as fuel cells, batteries and solar cells. With the utilization of nanotechnology, improvement in strength without a corresponding increase in weight of the product can be made possible, which could be a major motivational factor towards manufacturer’s adoption of additive manufacturing.

Another noticeable advanced material for 3D printing is carbon fiber, which is being increasingly used by vehicle manufacturers to build car roofs, fenders and windshield frames. Carbon fiber being light in weight offers a significant strength against deformation and thankfully, AM too is taking the advantage of this material.

A recent launch of the commercial AM device by MARKFORG3D, is supposedly the first carbon fiber 3D printer, thus opening a whole new set of opportunities to build carbon fiber parts for automobiles.

Nevertheless, the most appealing material for automotive product development is Titanium; essentially due to its useful properties such as low density, high strength and resistance to corrosion. Despite so many advantages, the feasibility of Titanium for additive manufacturing is limited mainly due to the costly methods used for producing metal powder. To overcome the cost barrier, Metalysis patented a process to produce Titanium powder in one-step that reduces the cost by as much as 75 percent.

Looking from the research initiatives mingling around additive manufacturing and advanced materials, there’s an enormous amount of opportunities to be unlocked by the automotive sector. Tier-1 and Tier-2 suppliers should be quick enough to grab the advantages the AM technique offers and simultaneously transform their supply-chain into leaner and tighter environment.

Although, the doors for conventional manufacturing are still open and will play a dominant role in automotive manufacturing, additive manufacturing is making inroads and is obvious to change the global shape of the industry.

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