MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (Jan. 19, 2016) — 3D printing could provide substantial savings to auto manufacturers as well as suppliers and consumers of automotive parts, according to a study by market researchers Frost & Sullivan Inc.
3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, involves the process of producing a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, usually by laying down many thin layers of a material in succession.
The application scope of 3-D printing technology is currently restricted to the production of extremely low volume parts and production tooling, Frost noted, due to the high costs of the machinery and raw materials, slow printing speeds and reduced levels of software optimization.
However “with a drop in material and machine prices, advanced software integration and faster printing, 3-D printing could potentially revolutionize automotive production, supply chain and the aftermarket,” according to Mountain view-based Frost.
The research firm predicts the technology will generate $4.3 billion from the automotive industry by 2025 as it penetrates automotive production and the aftermarket.
“Even though cheaper raw materials and technological enhancements will boost the uptake of 3-D printers, issues such as patent liability, product defects and patent infringement will persist,” said Viroop Narla, research analyst for Frost. “Furthermore, comprehensive training, as well as expensive data and communications systems, will be required to maximize 3-D printers' operational efficiency, decrease data loss, minimize corruption and theft.”
Currently, upstart companies are developing 3-D printing technologies and partnering with established companies, such as Ford Motor Co., to develop ways for OEMs and suppliers to print at multiple locations, thereby diminishing waiting periods and overall costs, Frost said. “Ultimately, this technology will also enable users to design and print customized parts, in line with each customer's requirements.”
Frost determined that last year, 90 percent of 3-D printing applications in the automotive industry involved prototyping and 10 percent were for production. However, Frost predicts a turnaround in that ratio with a 40-percent drop in price difference of raw materials (including plastics and polymers) used by conventional manufacturing and 3-D printing.
“Innovative materials such as carbon fiber, metal powders and titanium are expected to radically improve the mechanical, chemical and thermal characteristics of printed products,” Mr. Narla said. “Additionally, machines with a focus on quality and better manufacturing processes will lower post-processing requirements by generating products with superior tolerances and surface finish details.”