SME was one of the first North American organizations to see the potential of additive manufacturing. Its Rapid Additive Manufacturing show is the largest show of its kind in North America. We spoke with its new executive director and CEO Robert Willig, who has a private sector background in additive manufacturing, about the technology’s adoption challenges for automotive suppliers.
SHOP: How close would you say we are to seeing additive manufacturing gaining wide acceptance in mass manufacturing operations for automotive and what needs to happen for that to occur? Is the move to EVs and lightweighting creating an opportunity for additive manufacturing?
WILLIG: I don’t believe additive manufacturing will wholly replace forging, stamping and die casting. They will always be there because there is a place for all of those manufacturing processes, based on need. It comes back to what does the design have to accomplish? For example, how can we combine three parts into one, so you make the part easier to manufacture. But you have to go back to the fundamental function of the part as opposed to replacing on a one-to-one basis. I believe there will be significant volume opportunity for additive. In terms of electrification, one of the things that are unique about an electrified powertrain is that it’s less than half the number of individual components compared to an internal combustion engine vehicle. But although there are fewer components, their complexity is higher and so the opportunity to integrate parts opens up great opportunities for using an additive approach. One of the things that designing from the inside out allows you to do is to put material where you need it and minimize material where you don’t, thus providing lightweighting options. I believe additive manufacturing has tremendous opportunities in electrified vehicle programs and I think you are seeing more of that today. The biggest challenge is the ability to produce at volume, at scale. On the material development side, in the LEAN world we talk about waste elimination variation reduction. Today we still have a little bit of that on the additive side, so we have to go to post-processing or secondary finishing operations quite often. That’s going to limit the ability to make high-volume parts at scale. One of the fundamental reasons behind it is the need for more advanced material development programs. We are seeing that today, but it needs to accelerate.
SHOP: Do you think part of the reason additive manufacturing hasn’t taken off as rapidly as hoped has to do in part with the need to rethink how you design products?
WILLIG: It was a wonderful solution looking for a problem to solve. It was a technology push instead of an industry pull. It was sexy technology that people wanted to get into because if it became a horse race there was the fear of missing out. People jumped in and didn’t know exactly what to do with it, as opposed to developing the internal capabilities to utilize the technology to its best advantage. We are seeing things such as design for additive manufacturing becoming much more the norm in educational programs, teaching next-generation product designers how to design for additive from the inside out, thinking in three dimensions, as opposed to just subtracting material working from the outside in. That’s why I am confident we will continue to see growth in this market. SMT