Additive 3D printing is changing the auto parts industry

Additive printing, better known as 3D printing, consists of creating objects by superimposing objects. This technology seems to be outdated as we talk about it for years. Really old, but still limited to certain uses. But the uses are becoming more democratic and opening new outlets in the industry and for the design of components in the automotive sector in particular.

Production of powder bed additive

3D printing is not only about these melted and extruded plastic threads that we know in the so-called “general public” printers. An older technology, known as powder bed technology, created in the 90s, is favored by the industry today. Instead of being in the form of a wire to be melted by a heat source, the material is here in the form of a powder that is deposited then “bonded” meaning built up thanks to an energy source and/or a chemical binder.

When we think of 3D printing, we often think of plastic. But this is not the case. In addition to many petroleum derivatives (PLA, ABS, ASA, TPU, polyamide PA12, etc.), thanks to printing on a powder bed, it is possible to make parts in composite, metal (stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, copper. , chrome,…) and even ceramic.

Unlike filament 3D printing, powder bed printing makes it possible to produce more complex parts and in many more materials. On the downside, it is also more expensive which is why it remains reserved for industry.

3D printing on a metal powder bed

3D printing in a powder bed (PBF for Powder Bed Fusion) uses different methods depending on the needs, including: Selective laser fusion (SLM) for more resistant parts, Direct metal laser sintering ( DMLS) for a less stress-resistant but lighter component, Electron Beam Fusion (EBMS) for faster production but lower quality (and high cost), and the youngest, Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) which is composed to use liquid binder with nozzles.

Metal 3D printing - L-PBF laser fusion

3D printing on a plastic powder bed

3D printing on plastic-based powder is mainly done by Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) which is equivalent to DMLS. Because plastic has properties that allow it to melt more easily, production is faster and requires less energy than other materials.

Compared to filament 3D printing, parts can be more complex, produced faster, but more porous and less durable. The finish of the product is quite difficult, so it requires additional treatment to obtain a surface that is pleasant to the touch. Finally, this technology is also more expensive.

3D printing opens up new opportunities in the automotive industry

Multi-material rapid prototyping

Until then, it can take weeks to design and manufacture complex prototype parts. With 3D printing, project teams can design complex parts in just a few days, regardless of the materials used. Thus, teams are validating (or not) the design of components faster than in the past, such as this unprecedented sunroof worthy of James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 on the Alpine A110, panels of door or exhaust.

Alpine A110 with sunroof
A unique sunroof prototype

Alpine A110 exhaust pipe
A prototype exhaust pipe for the Alpine A110

A new way to personalize your car or offer a very limited special series

This technology is also very interesting to offer the personalization of your car, or to offer a small series. Renault illustrates this perfectly with the Alpine A110, a niche sports car that the brand often offers in very limited series with unpublished parts.

This has become possible thanks to 3D printing which is easy and in a very agile way it will be possible to create new parts without using expensive moldings.

3D printing in the spare part refactory service

If the production of parts using 3D printing cannot be done on cars in large series, on the other hand, it makes it possible to produce a very small series of discontinued car parts at a relatively low cost. A niche market therefore, but which remarkably allows you to continue to find spare parts in your auto parts distributor for some used cars or collection, but also to reduce obsolescence of products by extending the time when spare parts are available.

3D printing on powder bed automotive parts or tools

In fact, the classic production of parts consists either of a very expensive manual labor, or the use of molds that require a large initial investment that makes the economic equation obsolete for small series.

With powder bed printing, it is possible in particular to make “honeycomb” parts, which are tinted in mass, or which must have a certain flexibility or elasticity. Good news for the environment and for product sustainability.

Automotive parts in 3D additive printing

The Renault plant in Flins, renamed the Refactory, has had a 500m2 workshop dedicated to this training since 2020. Renault uses this workshop for its own needs, but it is also opened for those external customers. For more information, you can consult this link.

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