How the Auto Industry Will Adopt 3D Printing

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Nobody knows just yet how the auto industry will adopt 3D printing. But Desktop Metal Inc. (Burlington, MA) is in a better position than most to make an educated guess.

Both Ford Motor Co. and BMW AG are among Desktop Metal’s investors. The company also works with Volkswagen AG. Ken Washington, Ford’s chief technology officer, is on Desktop Metal’s Board.

“The industry has accepted it’s coming,” said Jonah Myerberg, Desktop Metal’s CTO and co-founder. “Big OEMs are trying to understand how to do this internally.” Automakers that work with Desktop Metal are “all forming a center of excellence within their organization to really understand this.”

The conventional wisdom is additive manufacturing will lag in automotive compared with industries such as aerospace. Production volumes are higher for cars and trucks than aircraft. 3D printing might be a match for making molds and dies for the auto industry, so the thinking goes.

A Different View

Myerberg isn’t so sure 3D printing will be that limited in auto applications. “You can’t just look at one area of the vehicle,” he said. “You have to look at the entire vehicle. Where can we attack from all sides to remove weight, to increase efficiency?”

Aerospace companies have embraced 3D printing as a way to design differently. General Electric Co. 3D prints a fuel nozzle as well as its Advanced Turboprop engine, which reduces the number of parts to 12 from 855 using conventional manufacturing. Europe-based Airbus also is committed to additive manufacturing.

With additive, where parts are made layer by layer from a digital design, new designs are possible. That reduces the number of parts that are cut and attached to one another.

“What we try to do is open their eyes to what we see as the key benefits of 3D printing,” Myerberg said of automakers. “Allow that thinking to be applied to their vehicles.”

‘Behind the Scenes’

That’s not always easy. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that these [automaker] engineers won’t talk about,” the Desktop Metal executive said. “We only have a small picture of how our customers are going to use these printers.”

Still, Desktop Metal still has a partial picture. “The first thing is these OEMs have been buying 3D printers to put in their facilities,” Myerberg said. “They’re installing them in their labs. They’re understanding how to design parts for additive and how much it costs to manufacture.”

Myerberg expects that automakers will eventually push 3D printing down into their tier one suppliers. “We’re going to find certain parts that react really well to design for additive and manufacture for additive,” he continued. “It makes sense for these OEMs to boost these Tier 1s to flexibly produce these parts in high volume.”

Referring to 3D printing, the executive predicted automakers are “going to want to understand it and learn it. But they’ll want the Tiers [suppliers] to compete for it.”

Interest is Real

The precise deployment remains to be seen. But Myerberg said automotive interest in 3D printing is real. “The OEMs are close-lipped on their strategy for the future,” he said. “They say, ‘We want to bring your tools into the house.’ They say they want to be experts. You have to draw the conclusion there’s going to be a healthy competition in the field for additive manufacturing very soon.”