Nov 3, 2017 | By Tess

German car manufacturer Volkswagen is no stranger to additive manufacturing technologies, as the company has been exploring various applications for 3D printing in the automotive industry.

At its Volkswagen Autoeuropa plant in Portugal, for instance, the company reported producing as many as 1,000 parts using its fleet of Ultimaker 3D printers last year and has seen significant cost savings since implementing the technology.

3D printed water connectors for AUDI W12 engine

Of course, most eyes in the auto industry are focused on the potentials of metal 3D printing. While the technology is remarkable for its ability to produce complexly structured parts in record times, Jörg Spindler, the head of equipment and metal forming at Audi’s Competence Center, believes that metal 3D printing is not quite the be all and end all technology it is often made out to be.

Jörg Spindler, Head of Equipment and Metal Forming at the Audi Competence Center

“Carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer didn't knock steel sheets out of the game,” he explains. “Rather, it created new possibilities. Metallic 3D printing is also not a competing process in mass production. But it will certainly lead to significant progress in some sub-areas.”

The progress he mentions is owed to 3D printing’s ability to manufacture complex and innovative structures, all while reducing material waste, and overall part weight. For the automotive industry, lighter parts mean more efficiency in fuel consumption, which in turn means more environmentally efficient vehicles.

A team from Volkswagen Osnabrück, which has been investigating how 3D printing can be used to reduce the weight of parts, demonstrated that it could cut back the weight of an A-pillar reinforcement system by a whopping 74%, all while maintaining strength and durability of the parts.

Knuth Walczak, the head of innovation and advance development management in the E Department at Porsche, adds that 3D printing has been useful in adding functionalities to certain small batch car parts. For example: a part can be redesigned to incorporate internal cooling or air flow channels, which might cut back on extra parts whose sole function is cooling.

Alexander Schmid, After Sales and Sales AUDI AG

In terms of durability as well, Walczak claims that 3D printed materials have not demonstrated any direct weaknesses. “Because the material is laid layer upon layer, you can systematically affect the microstructure. The mechanical properties differ significantly from those of conventionally produced parts,” he says.

Still, there are still challenges facing 3D printing within the automotive industry. For one, the technology’s cost is still prohibitively high, and its overall manufacturing rates are too slow for mass production applications.

These setbacks, paired with the necessity for improved dimensional accuracy and finish quality, mean that metal 3D printing will likely still be used for “special application areas” within the auto industry for some time. “The rule of thumb for the technology is: smaller, more complex and less cost sensitive parts are better suited for 3D printing,” says Volkswagen. Currently, the company is using metal 3D printing to print parts for its special and exclusive car series, as well as replacement parts of which only a small number are needed.

Ingo Hartmann holds a metal 3D printed part

For instance, Volkswagen 3D printed a gearstick for the iconic Porsche 959, as well as a water connector for Audi’s W12 engine. “Reproduction on demand is a vision for us. In the future, we will be able to economically and sustainably ensure supply with fewer original replacement parts. Regional printing centers will simplify logistics and warehousing operations,” stated Alexander Schmid, a member of AUDI AG’s After Sales and Sales department.

As metal 3D printing technology currently stands, Volkswagen says it is economically beneficial when it is 3D printing up to 200 units “throughout the life cycle of a product.” As the technology continues to improve and becomes more accessible, however, this number is sure to increase. “With the help of optimization in process and plant engineering, we will be able to reach cost effectiveness at a level of 3,000,” says Spindler.

Currently, Volkswagen Group has 90 3D printers operating at its 26 facilities, including Belmont, Braunschweig, Changchun, Chemnits, Emden, Györ, Hanover, Munich, Potsdam, and more.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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James Reeves wrote at 11/4/2017 12:36:39 PM:

That's interesting. Have you considered metal casting using 3D printed tooling? This technology is already cost effective to 10,000 parts.

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