As published in Lehigh Valley Business on March 16, 2015
The automotive industry historically is a pioneer in applying new technologies to the benefit of business as a whole. Today, additive manufacturing is being smartly used to increase product innovation and transform supply chains.
This story begins a century ago.
The decade following 1915 was one of unprecedented growth in the history of automobile manufacturing. The industry successfully made the leap across the chasm from a craft enterprise to one of mass production thanks in large part to the innovations of Henry Ford.
Although Ford has been informally crowned the inventor of today’s automobile, it was not the car that he invented, but rather the ability to make today’s cars a reality.
The growth of the automobile as an everyman must-have was precipitated by Ford’s moving assembly lines and his staunch dedication to simplification and standardization. Ford’s techniques cut production time from 12.5 hours per Model T to just more than 1.5 hours per car.
Just five years after the assembly line was developed, General Motors made key improvements to Ford’s concept that increased the flexibility of the system and allowed for faster production of a wider variety of designs.
GM reduced costs by reducing production time and increased the desirability of its product by offering diversity, bypassing Ford as the industry leader.
The rise of Japanese automakers in the mid-century is a direct result of adopting a core purpose of, as Toyota called it, “innovation in production management.”
Toyota broke from conventional mass-production techniques in favor of more experimental, but potentially much more efficient systems — and it paid off.
Its lean responsive production system improved profitability by reducing inventories and applying creative approaches to equipment, process quality and productivity that all resulted in a substantial competitive advantage.
All of these early advances focused on three things that have had incredible transformative power in driving the automotive industry forward: speed, simplification and innovation.
However, these often are disparate goals; one or two are sacrificed in order to advance the others.
Today, we are on the cusp of another great leap forward in the automotive industry with manufacturing technologies that make all three of those goals possible at once.
Despite the recent U.S. automotive industry crisis and the high barrier to entry of global automotive manufacturing, the parts and accessories manufacturing sector is a $1.5 trillion industry characterized by fierce competition as well as early adoption and application of technological advances.
Additive manufacturing techniques have become the darlings of the automotive world, improving the value and functionality of existing systems. Selective laser sintering, fused deposition modeling and polyjet 3D printing are making better and faster prototyping possible both at the design phase for new product development, as well as in precision pre-production with form-fit pieces.
Custom tools are tailored in record time to suit a specific automotive production process or procedure. (BMW’s customized tools saved 58 percent in overall costs and trimmed project time by an average of 92 percent.)
Following closely in the footsteps of the aerospace industry, the automotive community is increasingly testing the potential of additive manufacturing to break creative barriers within the three major trends driving the industry:
(1) Product innovation:
There are far fewer design limitations with additive manufacturing, so custom features and complex geometries impossible with traditional manufacturing are now attainable. Automotive designers are unlocking new aesthetics and reaching a higher level of brand differentiation.
(2) High-volume direct manufacturing:
Motorsports companies are leading the pack and experimenting with rapidly manufacturing high performance end-use parts with additive technologies.
The future of the wider automotive sector would benefit from leveraging the lower handling costs, fewer waste materials, lower inventory costs and shorter lead times all possible with directly manufacturing a higher volume of end-use parts using additive technologies.
(3) Fuel efficiency and increased performance:
The aerospace industry is using additive manufacturing to reach new heights in fuel efficiency, performance and safety, and the automotive industry isn’t too far behind.
Experimental hollow and lattice structures make for lighter parts without sacrificing strength. Systems that have historically required multiple parts can now be created as a single piece with modern additive manufacturing.
The ability to achieve more complex designs has resulted in a cleaner and simpler final product that improves functionality, speeds assembly and significantly reduces the cost of production. Multimaterial printed parts also can exhibit multiple properties such as electrical conductivity or strength.
Like General Motors’ improvements to Ford’s assembly line concept, much of the additive manufacturing in the automotive sector is being used to simply improve upon on an existing production model.
Everything from exterior trim pieces such as bumpers and wind breakers to the pumps, valves and vents of fluid handling and exhaust systems now are being created more quickly and at a better price point than ever before.
Meanwhile, visionary early adopters already are evolving into advanced users, exploring the limits of progressive additive manufacturing technologies.
-By Ron Belknap