Dec 12, 2014 | By Simon

Home to the United States' only graduate Department of Automotive Engineering, Clemson University is a destination for aspirational automotive design and mechanical engineers looking to immerse themselves in hands-on vehicle design, engineering, prototyping and production.

Among other real-world applications that the student body focuses on as a part of the graduate program is the Deep Orange project, a two-year vehicle prototype project that is required for students seeking a masters or Ph.D in automotive engineering.

The most recent completed cycle of the Deep Orange project, which was sponsored by BMW and is based on the current production model of the BMW X3 performance SUV, predominantly features rapid prototyped parts throughout using Stratasys' RedEye 3D printing services.

After launching the first stage of the Deep Orange project by conducting a market analysis and generating three personas to represent three target customers, the students moved onto designing an iteration of the popular mid-sized SUV with a focus on two specific design drivers: develop a crossover pickup-style design with maximum fuel economy and make that extra space versatile for a variety of purposes for the urban driver.

With their design direction in hand, the team initially designed the new parts for the X3 to be manufactured with steel stamping, however when they got part quotes back from a metal forming shop, the costs far-exceeded the allotted budget for the two-year project.

"Even with the excellent relationships we have with manufacturing suppliers, it didn't make sense to steel stamp these large parts," said Bill Sowerby, Deep Orange program director. "Once the students realized traditional manufacturing was out of the question, they had to go back and rethink how to design and build the prototype."

After coming to the conclusion that steel stamping was out of the picture, the students were forced to go back to the drawing board and reevaluate their manufacturing methods...which is when the topic of rapid prototyping came up from one of the students on the team.

Understanding that the parts didn't need to be made from steel, the students turned to Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) after receiving quotes from RedEye and learning that this new method of manufacturing would be not only 75 percent cheaper, but also delivered 90-120 days sooner than having the parts stamped. Additionally, the lighter weight of the parts would aid in the design objective of keeping the fuel economy high.

"My team and I were facing the challenge of getting the parts built in the shortest possible time within budget constraints. We investigated alternate options and talked with various body shops. But we ultimately chose FDM because the cost and time to make all the parts was drastically lower than the conventional sheet metal forming processes" added Ashish Dubey, project manager for the Deep Orange 4 team.

While the decision to switch from stamped steel to 3D printing made sense for budget and time constraints, it provided a new challenge in altering the design of the parts to be better-suited for additive manufacturing...particularly with ensuring that the new parts would meet up seamlessly with the existing BMW X3 body parts that they were building off of.

"We were dealing with extremely tight dimensional tolerances and even a few millimeters of deviation from the CAD models would have resulted in either the parts would not align correctly or would leave with big gaps," said Dubey.

As for ensuring that the final material would be able to match the desired finished quality of steel, the team changed the orientation of the print layers to help create a strong and smooth surface finish. Additionally, the final print files included added wall thickness to compensate for material lost during the process of sanding and finishing. For the parts larger than the size of the available 3D printers (36" x 24" x 36"), the team split the parts in strategic sections that were later hot-air welded to form their intended and final shape.

Understanding that steep stamping is a dramatically different process of manufacturing than steel stamping, RedEye helped the students switch their designs over to a more FDM-friendly production method.

"FDM is a very different process than steel stamping so the redesign was important. I helped the Clemson students determine the best orientation and placement for the bonding joint to ensure we would accurately build and weld the parts together to meet dimensional accuracy," said Eric Quittem, senior project engineer at RedEye. "With thicker walls, we also knew there would be some slight stair stepping on the surface of the parts which is inherent with the layering process. This was new to the Clemson team and we reassured them that the layer lines could be removed with secondary operations."

In all, RedEye built 14 parts for the Deep Orange 4 project in ABS-M30 on their Stratasys FDM 900mc platforms. Included in the order were four pieces of the tailgate, four pieces for the side frames, four pieces for the roof and rear window and two side panels. RedEye also aided in finishing the parts by hot-air welding and sanding the parts in preparation for automotive primer and painting to match the existing BMW X3 finish standards.

"The final parts were as good as it can get in terms of geometric dimensioning and tolerances," claimed Dubey. "Overall it was great working with the RedEye team and at the end of the day we got a chance to learn about a new technology which could very well be the future of low volume production parts."

As for what's next for the Deep Orange project, Deep Orange 5 is currently underway and is focusing their design driver on creating a better value proposition for young adults who have little money to spare and less interest in vehicle ownership, but need a mobility solution for commuting with the lowest cost of vehicle ownership.

With rapid prototyping proving to be viable and cheap solution for manufacturing, there's a good chance that there might be some 3D printed parts in there, too.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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