The vines of additive manufacturing intertwined with the evolution of the automotive industry for more than three decades. While several Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and suppliers were early to adopt 3D printers, the technology was largely considered an optional tool used for prototyping and simple parts—that is, until the past decade.
Since 2010, 3D printing has supercharged automotive manufacturing processes as machines get more sophisticated and automakers better realize the technology’s potential. Major OEMs and suppliers have raced to evolve their processes to fit the needs of an ever-evolving industry. By 2023, the automotive additive manufacturing market is expected to reach $5.3 billion in revenues and grow to a whopping $12.4 billion by 2028.
One of the people leading the charge to increase additive’s take rate in the industry is General Motors Product Application Engineer Brennon White. In advance of RAPID + TCT 2019 coming to Detroit on May 20-23, we talked with Brennon to get his expert perspective on the state of additive manufacturing in the industry today and its impact on the automotive landscape of the future.
How did you first get exposed to additive manufacturing in your career?
I first started researching additive manufacturing back in 2011, while figuring out ways to drive revenue for the automotive supplier I was working for at the time. When I saw the first 3D-printed metal part, it really opened my eyes and made me realize there was a function shift with the technology that we needed to investigate. Through further examination, I realized there were a lot of advances in metals, polymers and just general speed that our company wasn’t privy to.
A couple years later I had the opportunity to join GM, who had been using 3D printers for about 30 years and owned dozens of polymer machines used almost solely for rapid prototyping. In 2016, myself and several others started developing reasoning that helped the company realize how far additive had come since purchasing their first machine. We helped management get serious about trying to utilize 3D printing for more than simple rapid prototyping fit and finish, but actual, functional prototypes and low-volume production.
How are you currently using additive in your day-to-day work at GM?
I’m an applications engineer focused on interiors and electrical product groups. Since additive manufacturing doesn’t have high-volume throughput, we are working on enhancing the existing prototyping skillsets with functional applications.
For instance, my team is researching how to decrease our tooling builds—such as eliminating low-volume injection mold tools—to reduce both our capital expenditure budget on early prototypes, as well as our lead time to be able to evaluate product.
You mentioned lead times—how is additive helping to reduce them?
As I’m sure many in the business know, lead time can be a pretty significant hurdle in the development process. Take injection mold tooling, for example. To get a prototype tool through traditional methods, we could be looking at a 6-12 week wait. For a more complicated tool or production tool, it could take even longer. If you’re talking metal tools, that could take as long as 52 weeks!
Needless to say, we’re actively investigating additive as a way to reduce this lead time for tooling. So far with 3D printing processes, I’ve seen lead times drop by 25%, and as much as 90%! It can be very significant, to the point where we can now do multiple iterations of design work in the same timeframe it would have taken us to get the initial tool through traditional methods.
How significant are the cost savings with additive manufacturing methods?
I’ll share one specific example as to how additive provides an immediate economic advantage. We had a foreign company responsible for supplying an HVAC aspirator part, whose tool for making it essentially vaporized. We were faced with a choice—pay $40,000 for a new injection mold tool, or 3D-print the parts for less than $2,000.
The decision was obvious. And, since the technology has advanced since that story took place, I could probably print the parts today for well under $1,000. Not only were the cost savings there, but if I decided to purchase the injection mold tool for $40K, I’d have to wait for weeks on end just to get my first parts, whereas I could get printed parts on deck in less than a week, provided I’m fully geared up to do it.
There’s been talk about additive manufacturing disrupting the automotive supply chain—do you think it’s going in that direction?
Additive is not necessarily disrupting or reducing the supply chain at scale, but it is enhancing options to improve cost structure and delivery timing—creating value that, today, can be considered waste. GM has always and will always use external suppliers. What we view as a challenge in the supply chain is getting everyone on the same page regarding additive technology’s numerous capabilities.
I’m hoping the supply base will start realizing that 3D printing is a profitable alternative to taking a historic loss leader like low-volume jobs. And if we, as the OEM, struggle to find someone who would take a low-volume application, we now have the means to explore how to execute it ourselves.
To that end, many people don’t know just how many low-volume variants we actually produce now that we’re equipped with additive technology. Take a manual transmission, for instance. We don’t make many of them these days—only around 1,000 units a year for a given program—making it a perfect space for additive to thrive, so long as printing the parts makes economic sense. And in applications like service, where you’re only managing about 50 parts a year, the tooling often gets damaged, lost or unrepairable to the point where simply printing the components would be a cheaper alternative.
What is the benefit of automotive industry members attending additive conferences like RAPID + TCT?
The benefit is huge! Conferences like RAPID + TCT are where the industry can gather and learn about new and groundbreaking innovations, collaborate, make deals and find new ways of working together. It’s instrumental. When you are able to have strategic discussions with so many different members of the supply chain under one roof, it helps you understand not only where the industry is, but where it needs to go. Additive conferences are a way to create partnerships and proper strategic direction to get everyone on the same page.
With RAPID + TCT 2019 here in Detroit, one of the things GM is pushing for is attendance from all tiered suppliers, so they can start recognizing that additive is not just something they leave to the rapid prototyping shop. There needs to be a corporate strategy based around the technology for how they can use it to support their customers.
Another powerful aspect of RAPID + TCT is being able to see and appreciate the sheer functionality and capability of new machines and models compared to your older ones. It makes you start realizing the potential change in capacity to produce, which is something I see continuing to evolve over the next 5-10 years, and perhaps even further.
Speaking of evolution, how do you see the application of additive manufacturing advancing in the automotive industry?
Manufacturers are already spitting out 3D-printing machines as fast as possible, but the real lynchpin lies in their creation of functional materials which, for automotive, need to have performance characteristics that meet the OEM’s strict application needs. So, I envision a much deeper collaboration with the automotive materials supply base and print manufacturers.
I also see additive continuing to accelerate in the next 10-20 years for faster metal production and faster polymer production—to the stage where you can get blended materials that allow for even more functional parts. Having machines that can assemble parts like insert while they’re printing—or even introducing a rapid, robotic and precise process of installing them afterwards—would be a huge win for the automotive industry.