Expert Interview: Jan Tremel on How Bosch Is Using 3D printing at Its Center of Competence
27 November 2019
German multinational engineering and technology company, Bosch, is perhaps the world’s largest supplier of automotive components and an important supplier of industrial technologies, consumer goods, plus energy and building technology.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the company is also heavily involved in additive manufacturing (AM). The technology expedites time-to-market for new products when used for prototyping and, when used for production, it can introduce more flexibility and agility into a supply chain by printing certain components faster and on-demand.
Bosch uses AM across all of its company divisions and also has a centre of competence dedicated to 3D printing.
To learn more about how Bosch applies 3D printing across its business, we’re joined today by Jan Tremel, Head of the Center of Competence for 3D Printing (CoC), which belongs to the Powertrain Solutions unit.
With Jan, we discover what benefits AM brings to Bosch, the challenges of adopting 3D printing in-house, as well as the current state and future of 3D printing in the automotive industry.
Could you tell me a bit about your background and how you became involved in AM?
I first became involved between 2006 and 2007, during the period when the RepRap movement began to gain traction.
I was fascinated by the technology and built my first 3D printer myself at university.
At Bosch, I thought of how much simpler it would be if we had access to a small 3D printer. This idea inspired me to make several proposals, which eventually led to creating a centre of competence.
At this point, Bosch recognised that they would have to integrate this technology, for both plastics and metals, to be able to use it in their ongoing developments for the combustion engine parts that we provide to the market.
I’m currently located in the Powertrain Solutions business unit. It brings in nearly one-quarter of Bosch’s total revenue per year and incorporates around one-quarter of all the associates of Bosch. Here we try to implement 3D printing in serious projects, like high-pressure pumps for gasoline and diesel, injectors and other hydraulic systems.
You’re currently leading the Center of Competence for 3D Printing. Could you tell me about the work you’re doing there and how you’re applying the technology?
At Bosch, we have several centres of competence.
To give you an overview, at Bosch we’re divided into 4 major branches. This means we have one branch for building technologies, for example, security cameras, microphones for large arenas, etc.
Another unit is responsible for consumer goods, from ovens to washing machines.
Then we have the Industrial Technology unit, which specialises in special machinery for heavy industries.
Finally, my unit is Powertrain Solutions, which is the automotive area. All the units that I’ve described have their own teams that are responsible for the implementation of AM into their product lines.
In my unit, 50 per cent of my work is devoted to engineering new products. This means that I support my colleagues in the product development department, using 3D-printed components in the new products.
This requires creating innovative new applications that will benefit from the complexity of the design made possible with 3D printing.
On the other side, I also collaborate with all our manufacturing plants. This means I’m enabling or educating people working directly on assembly lines and on the manufacturing floors, so that they’re able to use AM in their daily work.
Let me give you one example: a maintenance team has a task to keep a production line up and running all day long. And they need, for example, grippers replacement that they can attach to a robot to replace broken parts and prevent downtime.
So I’m organising workshops with them, to show them what’s possible with standard materials and a simple 3D printer, so that they can create this replacement part for their equipment.
Furthermore, we are actively targeting cost reduction scenarios, for example, where we can replace existing designs with 3D-printed parts to save money internally. For example, we have a lot of testing devices that can be improved. With 3D printing, you can improve cycle time of the station itself and, therefore, improve the performance of the whole line. This helps us keep costs down and reduce waste.
What value does 3D printing bring to the automotive industry?
AM adds another useful process to an already well-established process portfolio. In automotive, we use processes like milling and turning, we can coat parts and do plastic injection moulding. These processes are all well understood.
But all of these processes have certain limitations when it comes to design flexibility and ability to iterate.
In the automotive industry, production cycles are getting shorter. This means you want to test parts and designs very quickly. In this regard, standard processes can be very expensive and take quite a long time.
Let me give you an example. If you need the moulding tool for a complicated plastic part, it could take up to 12 to 14 weeks, or even more, to produce. And with AM, you are able to generate the same result in a much quicker time, maybe in 2 to 4 weeks.
This means you can have at least 3 iterations of a part with 3D printing, whereas with injection moulding you’d have just one that you can use to improve your component. This way, AM enables a much shorter iteration cycle that allows you to improve your component.
This is just one area where 3D printing can help.
In terms of series production, I expect that AM will be used to customise cars to a much greater extent than it is today. It doesn’t make much sense to 3D print mass-produced components like seats or steering wheels.
But if you have small production volumes, as is the case for luxury cars or sports cars today, AM can enable special parts to be produced for such cars more economically than if you produced them using a traditional technology.
We’ll see this, first, in a very exclusive line of cars and with a very limited set of parts that are produced.
As AM processes get faster and better, we’ll eventually see AM production volumes expanding from a few hundred parts to several thousand parts.
Are there any challenges still to be overcome with AM to accelerate its transition to serial production?
There are a lot of barriers.
One is material limitations. There is still a long way for the industry to go before we have the right materials, both metals and plastics, for car applications. For example, some of our components will require high-quality steel that can withstand very high pressures.
Furthermore, if you take a look at a modern car, there are lots of components made of glass fibre filled plastic materials, that are either not available on the market at the moment, or much more expensive than the materials we use with traditional processes.
For example, you have a plastic component near a combustion motor. This part has very high-temperature requirements towards and is typically made from a polyamide which is filled with glass fibre. AM materials cannot make this part the same way and with the same characteristics we see with traditional plastics today.
A machined material and an additively manufactured material would have totally different characteristics, because melting material layer by layer, creates an internal microstructure different from what we are used to with standard materials.
Another barrier is a lack of accuracy and repeatability. There are still improvements to be made to AM systems to enable them to print the same parts across different printers with exact dimensions each and every time.
If you take a look at the connectors and other components that have very tiny holes and very tight tolerances, then this is also a challenge for 3D printers to produce.
Finally, we see a lot of manual processes in AM. Although, I admit, the industry is trying to introduce more automation, there are still a lot of manual processes, for example, powder removal in metal 3D printing, which makes the technology very cost-intensive.
Productivity is a crucial factor for the automotive industry, when it comes to AM adoption.
How do you see AM evolving in the automotive industry over the next 5 years?
The automotive industry has a different approach to applications compared to the medical or aerospace sectors, where products usually have a long lifespan, e.g. 20 or more years for an aeroplane.
The price point in automotive production is also lower, and you have to have very tight price calculations. This means that AM will only be used if it has a clear cost benefit.
I’m quite cautious about saying that AM will be used for serious automotive components in the next few years. It definitely will continue to serve as an accelerator for product development.
It’s still a long time before we will see additive manufacturing used for mass production within the automotive industry.
Is it challenging to convince people of the value of 3D printing, or do you find that people are very receptive to adopting the technology?
It very much depends. When we started, we had quite a missionary approach to convince everybody that 3D printing is one of the greatest things in the world.
Today, we focus more on projects that really make a difference in production. Not everything that can be done additively, should be done with this technology. We’re looking quite closely at applications that could benefit from 3D printing.
In the 4 years since I joined, we’ve seen that many people also already have a printer at home. So we give them the opportunity to use a 3D printer, not only in their private life, but also at work to enable them to do something new.
Are there any trends within the industry that you’re excited about?
That’s an interesting question.
I’m very interested in start-ups that can truly deliver on their promises. I’ve seen many start-ups that try to create a business model around a process that was not clearly developed.
But I’m fascinated by new processes that really work. In the plastics and metal areas, we see lots of interesting developments from the larger manufacturers that are getting truly serious about AM.
Previously, people were happy when they had a part in hand, and you could tell them that it was 3D printed. Today, people care much more about all the technical details, so that the characteristics of the material that was printed are met.
What I also like is that the market is getting more professional. This means that even for filaments you’re able to get qualified technical data, which includes not only mechanical tensile stress, but also safety data sheets. That makes 3D printing much simpler to use in our daily work.
What does 2020 hold for the Powertrain Solutions business unit at Bosch, when it comes to AM?
The next 12 months will have a clear focus on cost reduction and improving our manufacturing processes internally.
We’ll push for greater availability of 3D printing in Powertrain Solutions. This means there will be more possibilities for our people to use AM for small series to middle series production.