Why AM is starting to catch on in automotive and aerospace

Share This Post
Industry think tank Deloitte believes AM will make significant inroads in the $1.5 trillion global automotive parts and accessories manufacturing sector, which is characterized by a large number of small-sized players. PHOTO courtesy Pyrogenesis.

Significant advances in additive manufacturing (AM) are opening doors for the technology’s increasing use in both automotive and aerospace manufacturing and transforming the way these two sectors design and manufacture components. Some Canadian manufacturers are at the forefront of the transformation. Are more ready to follow?

AM has been primarily used for rapid prototyping in both automotive and aerospace, but it hasn’t been able to make the leap into high volume manufacturing many industry analysts had predicted when The Economist magazine proclaimed AM as “the third industrial revolution” more than a decade ago.

The primary reason for AM’s slow growth as a viable high-volume manufacturing option is the lack of understanding in the engineering community of how to design in AM, believes Dafydd Williams, president of Renishaw Canada, a provider of AM solutions.

“Designing specifically for additive manufacturing really is a skill. This lack of understanding of how to design for additive limits taking advantage of the process benefits in terms of things such as thin wall components, heat exchange, light weighting, or flow in hydraulic and fluid power components,” Williams says. “That’s a key element, which is changing over time.”

Electronics successfully embedded in a 3D printed metal object by Etteplan. IMAGE:  Etteplan

The second element that has been holding AM back is the current state of the technology, Williams adds. 

“The capital price versus the productivity of the equipment means you are in a cost per part realm, which means you need to have a very compelling application in order for it to make sense. I am talking specifically about high-fidelity metal parts as that is the world Renishaw is in.”  

Exco Engineering AM shop with EOS M400-4 DMLS installation.
IMAGE: Exco Engineering

But Williams also notes that the introduction of 5-axis machining in the late 80s followed a similar path of acceptance. Initially it was an extremely expensive, very difficult to program piece of equipment and you had to have a very compelling end use case in order to buy it, he says. Whereas if you look at 5-axis machining today, its productivity, the ability to program it from a CAM solution, and all the workholding and tooling that is available for it has changed the landscape for its acceptance dramatically. 

This Exco Engineering large die insert is a towering 395mm in height.
IMAGE: Exco Engineering

“Interestingly enough, the capital price for 5-axis machining hasn’t changed that much but the cost per part has because of the improvement in throughput,” Williams points out. “I feel the metal additive manufacturing industry probably will take a very similar route. The machines are constantly becoming more capable with more automation, higher throughput, and better powder handling.”

Industry think tank Deloitte believes AM will make significant inroads in the $1.5 trillion global automotive parts and accessories manufacturing sector, which is characterized by a large number of small-sized players. In its report, 3D Opportunity in the Automotive Industry, Deloitte argues AM can “potentially be a game changer” in two areas where it will have the greatest influence on competition.

Exco Engineering Die Shop. IMAGE: Exco Engineering

As a source of product innovation: AM can produce components with fewer design restrictions that often constrain more traditional manufacturing processes.

As a driver of supply chain transformation: By eliminating the need for new tooling and directly producing final parts, AM cuts down on the overall lead time, thus improving market responsiveness. In addition, since AM generally uses only the material that is necessary to produce a component, using it can drastically reduce scrap and drive down material usage.

For John Manley, president of Machine Tool Systems Inc., the Canadian representative for EOS Additive Manufacturing solutions, the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is providing a perfect opportunity to showcase AM’s benefits.

“Many electric vehicles are bespoke and produced in smaller numbers. AM is very flexible in adjusting to new requirements and designs without the need for hard tooling changes. Implementing AM from the start of design allows the implementation of cooling, light weighting, part consolidation, compaction & customization,” Manley says.

Canada’s first zero-emission concept electric vehicle, Project Arrow, includes low-volume metal components such as clips and brackets that were AM printed by the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

Manley also notes that as electrification and autonomy penetrate vehicles and electronics become more sophisticated, the resulting complexity is making for more densification of wiring. 

“The harnessing of these electronics provides an interesting tooling challenge that is well suited for AM,” Manley says. He cites the example of EOS and Finnish Etteplan, which have succeeded in 3D printing metal objects with embedded electronics inside the object in a way that enables mass production. This technology has enormous potential in the manufacturing industry, Manley believes. The first printed demo device has an integrated circuit board with sensors, and the metal shell of the piece acts as an antenna. 

“To date, this kind of solution has been regarded as challenging, if not impossible, for conventional technology. Even if you don’t integrate the sensor during the printing process, AM can be extremely helpful to realize compact designs that allow easier integration of sensors,” Manley says.

Manley adds that manufacturing the castings for vehicle frames has also changed with EVs. Monolithic structures to create the entire chassis with battery packs integrated are being fabricated with giga dies. These dies need to dissipate massive amounts of heat efficiently. 

“Traditional coolant lines would cool a zone with a drilled hole. Today, AM produced conformal cooling channels that labyrinth throughout the die inserts allow for far superior cooling and far fewer fittings,” he says. He cites Newmarket, Ont.-based Exco Engineering as a prime example of Canadian diecast tooling expertise utilizing multiple EOS AM systems.

The focus on light weighting to extend the range of electric vehicle design is also leading
to increased use of aluminum and high-strength steel. How well-suited is additive manufacturing technology to working with such metals?

“High strength aluminum, such as EOS Aluminum Al5X1 is a heat-treatable aluminum alloy designed for AM to offer a compelling combination of high strength and high elongation. The recommended single-step heat treatment does not require a water quench and enables robust part production. This makes Al5X1 well-suited for automotive components,” Manley says.

Lightweighting, obviously, is also a major driver for increased use of AM in the aerospace and defense sector. The global 3D printing in aerospace and defense market, valued at US $1.35 billion in 2021, is anticipated to reach US $8.66 billion by 2030, registering a CAGR of 26.1%, according to a report from Straits Research.

The last three years have seen multiple landmark announcements in the aerospace 3D printing sector, according to Straits Research.

Airbus has begun using additive manufacturing for the tooling and prototyping commercial aircraft parts. Around 2,700 3D-printed plastic parts have been introduced on the company’s new A350 XWB, Straits Research points out. Airbus also makes 3D-printed parts for the single-aisle A320neo and the A330/A310 aircraft. Boeing’s 777X is another example of the increasing adoption of 3D printing in
the aerospace industry. The 777X, features two GE9X engines with around 300 3D-printed parts, including fuel nozzles, temperature sensors, heat exchanges, and LP turbine blades.

The adoption of 3D-printed parts in engine systems is also increasing, states Straits Research. One of the most exciting developments comes from MIT, where researchers have developed a new heat treatment method that strengthens AM-printed metals, boosting their ability to handle extreme thermal environments. The breakthrough makes it possible to use AM on high-performance blades and vanes for jet engines without sacrificing quality and reliability.

Such AM technology gains are pointing towards a serious push for the technology into the lucrative automotive industry and aerospace sectors, and a competitive edge for those capable of wielding it. Unfortunately, pioneering shops such as Exco Engineering aside, Canadian manufacturers for the most part have yet to embrace AM technology.

“Canada is a laggard. I think it’s the classic argument of scale. If you need to make one of something you can manage it with a file and a hammer. If you need to
make a million of something then you need highly automated, sophisticated technologies. I think scale is probably the biggest reason Canada is a laggard in adopting new technologies,” says Renishaw’s Williams.

That’s why Renishaw has invested heavily in solution centers to allow people to come in and develop parts and gain knowledge with zero capital outlay. Let’s hope it leads to buy-in for the potential competitive advantages AM technology has to offer. SMT

Share This Post


Recent Articles

Wordpress Social Share Plugin powered by Ultimatelysocial

Enjoy this post? Share with your network