One Volkswagen car is manufactured from 6,000 to 8,000 different parts. Virtually none of them are 3D printed – this process is reserved to specialized parts and prototypes. The truth is that 3D printing is expensive and time consuming and, therefore, not suitable for mass production. But not anymore – Volkswagen became the first automotive manufacturer to use the “HP Metal Jet” – 3D printing technology suitable for mass production.
3D printing is a very useful prototyping technology. It has some potential in mass manufacturing, because it allows avoiding using so many tools. Each part needs its own tooling, whether it is stamped, casted or fabricated. 3D printing is simply too slow for a high-production environment like Volkswagen plants. However, HP Metal Jet changes everything, because it enables the production of a large number of parts using 3D printing for the first time. It makes it possible to make some parts in large quantities without making a lot of tooling.
Of course, even though Volkswagen is looking into a mass production of certain parts using 3D printers, they are still more relevant in manufacturing unique parts, which opens up a lot of personalization opportunities. For example, Volkswagen could start offering custom key fobs – all of the designs could be printed in large batches, despite each unit being different. A company called GKN Powder Metallurgy is involved in the project, which tells us it is about powdered metals being sintered. This allows skipping expensive machining processes along the way. HP Metal Jet simply lays out parts layer by layer pouring powder and the binder. The component then has to be sintered – baked under pressure to fuse the powder into a rigid structure.
Even though for now Volkswagen is thinking about custom gear knobs, tailgate lettering, keys and things like that, it mayo only take up to 2-3 years for this technology to be good enough to manufacture structural parts. Dr Martin Goede, Head of Technology Planning and Development, Volkswagen, said: “Our goal is to integrate printed structural parts into the next generation of vehicles as quickly as possible. In the long term, we expect a continuous increase in unit numbers, part sizes and technical requirements – right up to soccer-size parts of over 100,000 units per year”.
3D printed cars are still not practical or necessary. In fact, we are not even waiting for them. However, a quick 3D printing technology could allow for many interesting customization options, which are always great, because they allow buyers to make vehicles into truly their own.