Revolutionizing Manufacturing, One Part at a Time
Ideal for parts that can’t be produced any other way, among other uses, 3-D printing is making headway as a tool for prototyping, product development and part replacement.
By Sue Doerfler
Finding available replacement parts for classic cars like the 1950s Mercedes-Benz 300 SL coupé can be almost impossible. So, Mercedes-Benz Classic, a division of Daimler, 3-D prints such parts for the sports car as its rearview mirror base and spark plug holder. Daimler, the German auto, bus and truck maker, has been using the technology for 30 years; it also 3-D prints replacement parts for Daimler buses and Mercedes-Benz trucks, among other parts.
Needing a metal turbine blade that can withstand tons of force, Siemens Oil and Gas, the energy division of German industrial giant Siemens, turned to a manufacturing method it has used for more than 10 years: 3-D printing.
Long considered a tool for prototyping, 3-D printing, also called additive manufacturing, has become a valuable technology in the design and manufacturing of spare and replacement parts, as well as smallscale production. It’s making inroads in new product development and parts consolidation. It’s also being used as a tool to fabricate parts for production-line machines.
“It’s reshaping the prototype industry — and its future is production,” says Tony Lancione, co-founder and vice president — supply chain solutions at IndustryStar, a managed services and software technology company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The technology has forged into such sectors as oil and gas, automotive, aerospace, construction, consumer products, medical and dental. “Anything that can be molded from plastics can be 3-D printed, depending on its size,” Lancione says. “Early on, one of the disadvantages was part strength — you weren’t able to get the strength you could get with injection-molded parts — but those concerns seem to be subsiding as the technology advances. With high-strength applications, it’s virtually limitless what we can do with it. 3-D printing is a mainstay, definitely in the automotive as well as other industries.”
The technology, however, is still in its infancy: The percentage of companies using 3-D printing is small, says Ryan Martin, a principal analyst at ABI Research. He leads the Oyster Bay, New York-based advisory firm’s manufacturing, industrial and enterprise Internet of Things (IoT) research area. Only about 1 percent of products are developed additively versus reductively, he says. Nevertheless, he says, there is no question that 3-D printing offers companies a competitive edge.
Every year, at Daimler AG’s Sindelfingen and Untertürkheim sites alone, about 100,000 prototype parts are produced using 3-D printing. Daimler has long used the technology primarily to produce models, visual aids and prototypes; in 2016, the company started 3-D printing select plastic vehicle parts, followed by metal spare parts the following year.
René Olma, who heads the company’s global communications for the Mercedes-Benz cars and vans, vehicle R&D and sustainable-mobility division, says that because of 3-D printing’s potential in prototype construction, the company is looking to expand its use of the technology. “Through these prototypes, construction and new concepts can already be presented and tested at a very early stage with a high maturity level,” he says.
Pilot projects also help Daimler realize 3-D printing’s value. “We want to help shape the possible use of 3-D printing technology for aluminum and its alloys for various applications at an early stage, as well as introduce automotive-industry standards for series production components,” Olma says. The company also wants to explore the potential for motor-vehicle application, particularly involving reduced process times and costs, he says: “This is why optimization of the entire 3-D printing process chain and the optimal component design play a key role for us.”
In a pilot with commercial and military aircraft supplier Premium Aerotec and German 3-D printing technology provider EOS, Daimler set out to demonstrate the potential for 3-D printed aluminum replacement parts and series production components in the automotive and aerospace industries. The goal of the project, begun in 2017 and called NextGenAM, was to reach up to a 50-percent reduction in cost. While the resulting cost savings was about 30 percent depending on the part, Olma says, “we believe an additional 20 percent might be achieved by using more printers in a parallel-scaled setup or by implementing more production lines to increase the output.”
The first replacement part manufactured at Premium Aerotec — a bracket for the cold start valve of a diesel truck engine — is already in use, Olma says. “For the future, we want to make greater use of the degree of freedom and design possibilities of 3-D printing in order to achieve product advantages,” he says. “We are currently dealing with this topic in the design, calculation and evaluation of various components in the exterior, interior and powertrain areas. However, the number of units will initially be low and in special-purpose vehicles with smaller quantities.”