How Automotive OEMs Can Solve Additive Manufacturing Challenges Through Digitisation

17 June 2021
BMW 3d printed car parts how digitisation can transform additive manufacturing in the automotive industry

[Image credit: BMW]

The automotive 3D printing market is forecasted to grow to $9 billion opportunity by 2029. Automating AM operations will be instrumental in driving this growth. 

Below, we explore the challenges AM users in the automotive industry face that can hamper this growth and how digitisation and software can help meet these challenges head-on.

Additive manufacturing in the automotive industry 

Fittingly for an industry that’s all about moving people and things around, the automotive industry is in the midst of a major shift. 

Semiconductor shortages, looming changes to fuel efficiency standards, and the ongoing rise of electric and hybrid vehicles worldwide are among several notable trends shaping the automotive industry in 2021. 

At the same time, automotive OEMs and suppliers are grappling with the effects of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic put a dent into automotive sales, especially in its early months. Ultimately, 2020 sales fell approximately 15% year-over-year, indicating a massive drop for the industry. 

As part of these trends, automakers have been making strategic investments in flexible manufacturing and supply chain resilience. That includes being able to incorporate design changes faster, improve the efficiency of the assembly line with more ergonomic tools, and provide agility with on-demand spare parts. 

Additive manufacturing has been instrumental in helping automakers invigorate their industry through flexible manufacturing. 

On the one hand, the technology has been entrenched in automotive product development, allowing designers to iterate and validate designs faster with 3D-printed prototypes. On the other hand, major automakers have also been expanding their use of 3D printing for assembly line tools, spare and end-use car parts. 

The growing use of AM in production is also partly driven by the rise of E-vehicles. Electric cars need to be lighter to be more energy-efficient.

3D printing for electric vehicles on the picture Ollie and FUV
Electric vehicles featuring 3D-printed components [Image credits: Local Motors, Arcimoto]

Reducing components’ weight requires new approaches to the design of the components under the hood. AM is one such technology that enables lightweighting and new designs unfeasible with traditional manufacturing methods. 

That said, as the use of AM in automotive grows, so does the complexity of managing AM production, including order fulfilment, quality control and supply chain management. Whether for prototyping or serial production, carmakers who use AM in-house have to navigate many challenges. 

Below, we explore the most pressing challenges and how digital automation can help automotive companies maximise the productivity of their AM. 

Read also: 

How is 3D Printing Transforming the Automotive Industry?
4 Major Digital Manufacturing Trends in the Automotive Industry
10 Exciting Examples of 3D Printing in the Automotive Industry in 2021

Five 3D printing challenges that automakers can solve through digitisation 

car manufacturing and 3d printing

1. Ensuring faster turnaround of prototypes 

As OEMs race to bring advanced features to the roads first, there is greater demand for rapid prototyping. Whether carmakers need to visualise concepts or test out ideas with functional prototypes, 3D printing proves an ideal technology. 

However, running an RP facility or lab comes with its own set of challenges. For example, manually collecting customer orders (which often come in through email or by phone), quoting them, and sending quotes back can often be unoptimised activities that prolong lead times. 

Managing the ordering step manually and with the help of siloed tools like spreadsheets is prone to errors and leaves little opportunity to improve.

A better solution would be to standardise and automate the process of collecting 3D printing requests. One way to do this is by implementing a platform that allows users, e.g. engineers, to request a part through a dedicated portal by uploading a 3D file and choosing a suitable material and technology. 

It means that they can place an order in a matter of minutes without the need to communicate with RP lab assistants and get notified automatically about each milestone in their prototype’s manufacturing workflow. 

Once the order is in the system, RP lab managers can track the incoming orders, prioritise them and schedule production. The order submission process starts to work like a well-oiled machine through automation, saving time that managers would otherwise spend on collecting and organising data manually.   

With speed being a top priority for car manufacturers, the faster designers can receive their prototypes, the more agile they will be in testing and validating product ideas. Accelerated product development, in turn, plays into faster time-to-market for new vehicles and a leg up on the competition.

2. Better control over AM supply chain and outsourcing workflow

additive manufacturing system monitoring through MES

The automotive industry is an integrated chain of suppliers, manufacturers and consumers. A ready-made product, such as a car or another type of vehicle, consists of several hundred to even several thousand elements manufactured and supplied by different companies, often located in different countries.

The supply chain in automotive AM is similarly complex: automotive OEMs looking to install 3D-printed parts into their cars have to collaborate with different suppliers to ensure timely production and distribution of parts. 

However, as our multiple conversations with customers show, for many automotive manufacturers sourcing AM parts from third-party suppliers is inefficient. The process often involves back and forth emails and calls to discuss and agree on prices, and doing so manually results in a lack of transparency and agility. 

AM supply chain is a complex area to get under control, but here are some tips on how you can manage the AM supply chain more efficiently:

  • Integrate all suppliers and parts manufacturers onto a centralised AM order and supply chain platform. An integrated network of suppliers and subcontractors allows you to compare production lead times and costs, making it easier to choose a more suitable supplier. 

  • When managed through an additive MES, an integrated supplier network allows you to streamline the flow of orders by automated routing. This allows everyone in the automotive supply chain to be prepared to receive and process orders quickly.

  • Finally, collaborating with suppliers through a centralised platform creates visibility for AM parts and projects and allows you to identify delays or other issues early on.

3. Ensuring AM process repeatability and quality of parts

Production efficiency and quality of parts are paramount when 3D printing car parts. 

However, while traditional manufacturing processes are well-understood, the industry is still figuring out the best approaches to AM that will guarantee repeated quality. 

In AM, parts are produced in small batches, potentially in different factories. Without a way to achieve consistent production every time, it’s challenging for manufacturers to ensure that parts are always manufactured to the exact specifications. 

To ensure repeatable AM and high-quality finished parts, automotive manufacturers need to establish a standardised workflow. 

Standardising AM operations will require effective management of AM systems and processes, automation and a high level of connectivity to provide complete workflow visibility. 

Automotive OEMs and suppliers, therefore, need a digital additive manufacturing management system, like additive MES.

Modern additive MES offer powerful tools supporting standardised, consistent AM operations. 

Additive MES allows users to control operations by adding unique serial numbers to parts and defining rules that automate the flow of parts through different production steps. For example, once an order is confirmed, the system can automatically assign parts from the order to specific machines based on defined parameters like material, technology, priority and 3D printer availability. 

Then, once printing is finished, the MES software can track parts further during post-processing operations and quality checks right through to delivery, maintaining a single digital thread. 

additive manufacturing automation journey

When software controls the processes, it eliminates the possibility of errors like assigning parts to the wrong machine or missing deadlines because of disarranged order priorities.  

Furthermore, a digital system simplifies control quality and audit checks. When data is centralised, and any changes to it are logged and tracked, it becomes easier to trace quality and certify processes according to industry standards.

4. Maximising productivity of an additive manufacturing lab

When managing an automotive AM facility or lab, there is an essential need to improve productivity to achieve higher ROI on expensive 3D printing equipment and materials.

But how do you measure the productivity of your manufacturing equipment? How do you gain insight to improve your processes?

Without the right technology, measuring the productivity of the AM production line becomes arduous. This is especially true if you rely on spreadsheets, paper or disparate software platforms. 

Manual, disconnected tools are inadequate for the task of tracking and measuring the productivity of your AM systems. They simply don’t provide the level of visibility you need to run AM production effectively. 

To better track productivity, you can use an integrated additive MES system that connects with AM systems and generates reports on crucial metrics, like yield, failure vs success rates, and machine uptime. 

Armed with the data, the lab managers can identify bottlenecks, like underperforming equipment and take proactive steps to keep up efficiency. The data about the performance of AM lab can encourage managers to make crucial business decisions to increase productivity, such as optimising machine parameters or assigning more operators to specific tasks.

5. Producing parts flexibly and at the point of need  

One of the biggest opportunities unlocked by 3D printing is manufacturing parts or tools on-demand and in flexible quantities. 

However, for this process to be efficient and repeatable, manufacturers need a complete database of AM files and production data that will allow them to find, order and produce parts and tools on demand. 

The lack of the right system to maintain such a database negates the benefits of on-demand 3D printing. For example, storing 3D printing files in folders or sending them via email can quickly lead to duplicate or even outdated files being shared. 

Furthermore, unoptimised storage of 3D printing data can’t support agility in manufacturing. It can be highly time-consuming for AM lab managers to find the correct version of files, double-check their production requirements and only after that send them for production.   

A better approach to on-demand production would be to establish a digital catalogue of parts that stores the latest versions of CAD models, as well as their production requirements.

AMFG digital catalogue
A digital part catalogue can significantly simplify the ordering and re-ordering of 3D-printed parts. [Image credit: AMFG]

A single file storage system makes it easier to find the design file and all the necessary information about the part, like the required process and material. 

An additional benefit of a virtual part inventory is its ability to connect to your other software applications, like ERP and MES. 

Digitally linking your virtual inventory and production management software has two fundamental benefits. First, it allows AM users to order parts with a click of a button. And second, AM production planners can be notified about the order instantaneously and schedule parts for production without a tedious back and forth process. 

Read also: 4 Ways Digital Inventory Can Support Your Additive Manufacturing Operations

Driving the growth of automotive AM with digitisation

Additive manufacturing helps automakers and suppliers become more adaptable to change and innovate faster. However, to fully exploit the potential of AM, technology adopters need to ensure the efficiency and scalability of 3D printing. 

To support the growth of AM, forward-thinking automotive manufacturers turn to the digitisation of critical workflow processes. Digitisation has many benefits to offer for AM operations management, including streamlined ordering and production scheduling, integrated supply chains and virtual inventories for on-demand additive manufacturing. 

But to make the most of digitisation, it needs to be based off of a centralised platform that can connect different parts of AM operations for complete visibility and traceability. 

Such a platform can be found in additive MES. As automotive companies accelerate product development and introduce optimised car parts with the help of 3D printing, digital solutions, like MES, help them do so more efficiently, opening opportunities for better decision making, process optimisation and scalable growth.

Discover how AMFG can help you

With system connectivity, workflow automation and an extensive range of software integrations, our additive MES and workflow software offers a complete solution to help automotive AM users achieve connected, scalable AM processes across their organisations and supply chains. 


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