Lightening the Future Automobile With 3D Printing

Lighter weight and more energy efficiency go together in automotive design. It’s what many auto manufacturers strive for to be competitive and meet consumer demand. 3D printing is helping them achieve this goal.

There’s an astounding number of parts on an automobile: assemblies and subassemblies, small parts, tinier parts, and large bulky parts. All these parts are made from different materials, which themselves have different characteristics in terms of degradation and wear.

Weight Loss

Automobile parts also have varying weights. Weight factors into the vehicle's overall fuel efficiency, speed, and other factors such as design, especially for electric vehicles. Auto manufacturers aim for parts that have the same performance at a lighter weight. Lately, 3D printing is making them more successful at it.

Recently, the Ford Motor Company employed the use of 3D printing. These parts are used in some of Ford's lines, including the Ford Focus (HVAC lever arm service part), the Ford F-150 Raptor truck (auxiliary plugs), and Ford's new 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 (electric parking break brackets).

Ford isn't the only one. Lamborghini, the Italian sports car manufacturer, has also turned to 3D-printing technology to create a new textured fuel cap.

Ford and Lamborghini’s efforts are part of a larger movement by automakers to lighten their vehicles, especially for electric ones, using 3D printed materials as prototypes. Prototype parts can then be refined for final designs. For example, General Motors plans to introduce more electric battery and fuel cell vehicles to its global lineup by 2023. Their ability to use 3D printing to create lightweight parts could help them and others in the electric vehicle industry.

Lightening the Electric Vehicle

Because consumers have had a longstanding concern for the limited range of electric vehicles, manufacturers are trying to cut weight so they can go further on one charge. The distance traveled on a charge is its range, and it has been a major obstacle to the mass adoption of electric vehicles.

A longer range may also mean the vehicle makes it to the next charging station without driver worry. After all, there’s not a robust infrastructure around the nation to charge electric vehicles, so the range is very important; light car parts—prototyped and often built with 3D printing help achieve that goal.

This is how GM created a prototype for a better stainless-steel seat bracket. They used Autodesk technology to scan and design, via cloud computing and artificial intelligence, a part that ended up reducing the weight of the bracket by 40 percent while making it 20 percent stronger.

General Motors now has a director of additive design and manufacturing (Mr. Kevin Quinn), who says that within a year or so, the company expects to have 3D printed parts in many of their high-end motorsport applications. Looking four to five years ahead, General Motors expects to produce thousands (even tens of thousands) of parts and then scale production as they improve their technology. Over time, prototyping will help them get a better grip on what parts they're able to produce, given the specifications of strength and weight.

Aiding Design and Manufacturing

For auto and many other types of manufacturing, 3D printing is ideal for prototyping and producing jigs and fixtures used in the manufacturing process. However, more parts are fabricated as finished products and are integral to the entire finished vehicle. 3D printing and advances in additive manufacturing are making this happen. It enables them to test and experiment with different feedstocks before implementation into vehicle design.

For automobile manufacturing, 3D printing is disruptive. It helps make vehicles lighter and more efficient. It’s at the core of making parts with all the salient and attractive characteristics to meet the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s car buyers. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

Learn about how some automotive companeis are utilizing 3D printing for the design of tooling and jigs in this other great article by Jim Romeo.