[Editor’s note: Guest blogger Randall Newton continues his occasional series of articles on trends in engineering with this report from the recent FORMNEXT 3D printing conference in Germany.]
Automobile manufacturer Audi is using its A4 Limousine, a low-production model, as a proving ground for process innovation research. One large steel frame section of the A4 has always been difficult to manufacture, so the research team decided to try 3D printing. Audi engineers optimized the design for improved cooling and a 50% weight reduction, and then used Selective Laser Melting (SLM) to create 10,000 pieces.
For a generation, 3D printing has gradually gained acceptance as a useful adjunct to product engineering and manufacturing. In recent years, a few manufacturers have created end-use parts; GE Aviation recently celebrated the 3D printing of the 30,000th jet engine fuel nozzle. Now companies are looking beyond prototyping and limited editions and toward the day when 3D printing can produce final parts in the hundreds of thousands.
The Industrialization of 3D Printing Technology
In November, 3D printing vendors showed their newest products at Formnext, a fast-growing annual conference in Frankfurt, Germany. Martin Boch of Audi was a keynote speaker at the Formnext executive conference. “The main goal is the industrialization of 3D printing technology,” says Boch, the project lead for metal additive manufacturing at Audi. His company currently has three basic uses for 3D printing. R&D occupies about 20% of the company’s use of 3D printing; 60% is for prototyping; and another 20% is for creating spare small parts and tooling. Before Audi can move into serial production of small parts, Boch says it must define standard processes for sourcing both printers and materials.