The Rise of Automotive Additive Manufacturing

Mercedes Trucks Coming to a 3-D Printer Near You

Daimler, a German multinational automotive manufacturer, is driving innovation in the automobile industry through the use of additive manufacturing (“AM”). AM has the potential to revolutionize the automotive industry and the manufacturers are currently exploring AM as part of their production process in two major ways:

For driving product innovation: 3-D printing can allow automotive companies to experiment with prototypes at a much faster rate and produce a wide variety of prototypes, some which are not entirely possible through the existing manufacturing procedures. According to a research report by Deloitte, “Additive manufacturing can produce components with fewer design restrictions that often constrain more traditional manufacturing processes.  This flexibility is extremely useful while manufacturing products with custom features, making it possible to add improved functionalities such as integrated electrical wiring, lower weight, and complex geometries that are not possible through traditional processes.” [1]

As a driver of supply chain transformation: Manufacturers have an opportunity to produce some of the final components used for its automobiles using additive manufacturing processes. This will allow the company to reduce overall time to market for its products. Furthermore, AM-manufactured light- weight components can lower handling costs, while on-demand and on-location production can lower inventory costs. For example, with additive manufacturing, Ford replaced the traditional process for developing a prototype of an engine manifold that would have cost $500k and four months to being able to develop multiple iterations of the component in just for days with a cost of $3k. [2] Finally, AM can support decentralized production at low to medium volumes. This will allow companies to produce more models that can be customized to customer specific requirements without having to deploy a huge amount of capital expenditure. Additive manufacturing enabled mass-customization has the potential to become a key differentiator for major players in the automotive industry.

Together, product innovation and supply chain transformation have the potential to alter the business models of automotive companies.

Daimler is currently using additive manufacturing in the following ways:

  • Daimler has to customize its bus lines for its customer all over the globe. These customizations are primarily driven by different regional and regulatory requirements. Daimler has started using additive manufacturing to produce parts for its Setra bus line. [2] To date, Daimler Buses has 3D printed over 780 spare and final parts. These have included drawers, cover moldings, retaining strips, adapters, and surround rings. In addition, more than 150 different replacement parts for buses are currently being validated in regard to their feasibility as 3D printed parts.
  • Mercedes (owned by Daimler) started printing 30 plastic replacement parts for its Actros series trucks in Europe with more to come as the standard production method in its Customer Services & Parts sector. [3] Mercedes has made tremendous progress with its AM capabilities and is now able profitably print only 1 part instead of having to print a batch of the parts and keep the rest in inventory. This has also allowed Mercedes to lower its shipping and handling costs as the AD printers can be placed closed to the end destination of the final parts. [2]
  • Daimler formed a partnership with Premium Aerotec, an aerospace 3D supplier, to move into metal based additive manufacturing. [4] In August, 2017, Daimler announced that aluminum 3-D printing passed its internal quality assurance test, and that Daimler will be printing its first metal 3D printed spare part, a thermostat cover, for an older model Mercedes truck. [2]

Some more steps that Daimler can take to enhance its additive manufacturing strategy:

  • A major hindrance to wide-spread implementation of 3D printing is the speed of production. [5] Currently, the printers can take several hours to put together a single piece. Additionally, these 3D printers do not process the ability to manufacture some of the larger parts required by automotive companies, which still have to be welded together using the smaller printouts. [5] Daimler has an opportunity to position itself as a top player in the automotive industry if it can partner with research organizations and academic institutions to solve these issues.
  • Additionally, Daimler should focus on internally training its engineering talent in the use of additive manufacturing software. With the expansion of AM applications, there will be a greater need for formal and extensive training and skill development programs in the application and management of AM. [1]

Key considerations for automotive manufacturers include:

How will traditional manufacturing evolve as the automotive industry moves towards increase adaption of latest technology and what roles will employees play in the future? What can automotive companies do in order to train their employees to make sure they have the right talent when the additive manufacturing technology becomes fully viable?

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[1] Deloitte United States. “3D Opportunity for the Automotive Industry.”, accessed November 2018.

[2] Evercore ISI. “Additive Manufacturing – Another Lever For Companies To Pull Over The Next Decade?”, February 2018.

[3] Scott J Grunewald. “3D Printing Will Help Mercedes-Benz Trucks Deliver Thousands of Replacement Parts On Demand.”, accessed November 2018.

[4] Daimler. “NextGenAM: Taking major steps into the next generation of industrial 3D printing: Partner project involving Premium AEROTEC, Daimler, and EOS for developing series additive manufacturing reaches new milestone.”, accessed November 2018.

[5] Choon Wee Joel Lim, Kim Quy Le, Qingyang Lu, Chee How Wong, “An Overview of 3-D Printing in Manufacturing, Aerospace, and Automotive Industries”, 2016.


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Student comments on The Rise of Automotive Additive Manufacturing

  1. One risk with AM is that parts may pass quality tests, but not end up performing to specification because of irregularities that current tests are not designed to find. I wonder how Daimler intends to upgrade its testing capabilities to ensure components manufactured via AM do, in fact, meet quality standards.

  2. As I read this I wonder if innovation in this industry will shift from OEMs and large companies to “startups”. Given the capital intensive methods of innovation now, a lot of the new developments seem to be coming in from existing players. 3D printing, to me has the potential to allow smaller firms, or even individual designers to manufacture. Since the customers would be the OEMs, they would potentially have to do the testing and sign-off but it appears to be a good place to start!

  3. In my previous job, we would often work with 3D printed plastic prototype parts specifically for the reasons mentioned – lower cost and shorter lead time. I hadn’t thought about the potential benefits for making low volumes of parts for servicing old vehicles. That is a really interesting application.

    Another key benefit of 3D printing in the automotive industry is that you can create shapes that can’t be created by other means or that would require the assembly of sub-components. In these cases, 3D printing can reduce mass which is critical for improving fuel economy.

  4. The question about the human workforce is a very valid one. As traditional manufacturing becomes more “humanless”, I believe the job description of human workforce would change drastically in the future, as technologies that will allow us to create automated workforce, which will be disrupting the human workforce, will also create new jobs for humans. We just don’t have the visibility for that yet.

  5. I had a similar thought as Raleigh about the quality of these 3D printed items. My risk-adverse self would be afraid of using 3D parts in consumer sold cars and I wonder if consumers would react negatively to cars with 3D products as they would deem them “unsafe” and of “lesser build quality”. Thinking out loud: Is end goal of additive manufacturing (AM) to do produce at mass-scale? If so, will AM be able to reach economies of scale where it is cheaper to produce a part through AM rather than human-led assembly lines? These are all fascinating questions to me about the industry. I also wonder how governments will react to AM. Will there be regulation on the product usages of AM in cars and trucks? It’ll be interesting to follow how automotive companies shift to AM in the coming years and the public’s reaction to this change in the manufacturing of these vehicles.

  6. Super interesting – I agree with the author’s position that additive manufacturing has the potential to revolutionize auto manufacturing, particularly in the prototyping phase. However, to the author’s point about AD machines’ cycle times, I have a tough time imagining that AD will be used for mass production in the near term. AD machines strike me as being similar to workers in a job shop—it’s an expensive machine that can handle a wide degree of customization. Auto manufacturing—characterized by mass production—lends itself to a connected flow process. Do you think this will ever change?

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