Business cases: 3D printing in the automotive industry

automotive production line

This article discusses how 3D printing in the automotive industry is largely impacting all the segments of the sector and provides you with successful business cases.



Having several years of experience in the 3D printing industry, we have come across many examples of when additive manufacturing helped companies from various industries improve the technical and business aspects of parts and products. For instance, 3D printing in the automotive sector has helped manufacturers decrease the cost of product development while, in the aerospace industry, it allowed aircraft makers to build lighter planes.  

Even though the implementation of a new approach to manufacturing might have been challenging at the beginning, these companies experienced a positive impact on their production process and, consequently, in their end-products. In fact, the benefits were perceived in so many aspects of their operations that these companies intensified their investments in the technology and transformed it into a vital part of their manufacturing process. In my opinion, that is one of the main indicators that industrial 3D printing is here to stay and is the future of manufacturing.

For that reason, we have decided to write a series of articles with real-life business cases to demonstrate the impact of 3D printing in the automotive, medical and other industries. The first article of this series focuses on the automotive industry and the significant gains obtained by companies in the sector through additive manufacturing.

Automotive driving AM growth or AM driving automotive growth?

The automotive industry has experienced an unprecedented, industrywide adoption of 3D printing as a manufacturing technique since its early days. It is no surprise that automotive manufacturers are among one of the most engaged to find new applications and develop the technology further. After all, 3D printing is a game changer for the sector and the tendency is the consolidation of additive manufacturing throughout all its segments. According to SmartTech’ s forecast for automotive additive manufacturing, the market which generated $1.1 million in 2017 will grow to $5.3 million in 2023. But what’s more exciting is the predicted growth during the 5 following years: revenues are expected to climb to $12.6 million in 2028. That means an astronomical growth of 1145% during the course of the next 10 years.
automotive additive manufacturing market

When additive manufacturing emerged as a production technique, automotive companies were using it to create prototypes of parts with the goal of checking their form and fit. At the time, the technology allowed them to produce aesthetically pleasant parts. However, these parts lacked the required strength and durability. It was clear that the technology still had a long way to go. Nonetheless, the automotive industry, which was one of the first sectors to identify the potential of additive manufacturing, played an important role in accelerating the growth of this revolutionary manufacturing technique. The major players in the market spent (and spend) an enormous amount of time and money into research and development of additive technologies.

Nowadays, 3D printing has advanced to the point where carmakers are able to also use it for the production of end parts. It is safe to say that these advancements are paving the way for interestingly new approaches for conceiving and producing cars. Most importantly, additive manufacturing technologies are playing an important role in driving competitiveness and will exert great influence as a source of product innovation and as a driver of supply chain transformation.

Automotive companies who implemented additive manufacturing are benefiting from reduced lead times, decreased costs and new ergonomic designs. This compilation of business cases highlights some of these benefits and explains how AM has played an important role in the development of products in the sector.

Processes and quality improvements through Rapid Prototyping

The design phase of a new product usually requires several iterations before the final design is decided. Depending on the project, this process can take weeks, if not months. However, AM is giving carmakers the ability to streamline and speed up this crucial stage of product development. One of the most considerable advantages of the technology is that it provides companies with the ability to build various alternatives of a product at an extremely low cost. Being able to produce a physical model for each variation makes it easier to visualize and compare all the design alternatives. Thus, supported by these physical models, carmakers are able to refine the design of their products in a shorter period of time and with little additional cost.

A good example comes from one of the major tire producers in the world. During the design phase, the company uses rapid prototyping to produce several variations of the product being developed. The final design is decided after checking the touch and feel of all the alternatives. What is curious in this case, is that aside from the benefit of providing its OEM customers with prototypes of customized options, the company also gains a valuable competitive advantage over its competition. Why? Because some of its competitors are restricted to designs specifications when sharing newly developed products with their customers.

Another advantage of AM is the high degree of design flexibility the technology offers. This allows companies to build a large number of prototypes, enabling car manufacturers to test for quality well ahead of the production schedule. For instance, during the preproduction and design process of its products, GM’s rapid prototyping department produces test models of more than 20 000 functional components.

Customized Tooling

The production line of automotive vehicles heavily relies on tooling for assembling and manufacturing high-quality products with consistency. Additive manufacturing allows automotive companies to customize car assembly tools by improving its functionality and reducing its weight at a lower cost than traditional manufactured tools. There are even cases where completely new tools are developed for specific, customized designs.

This type of tool customization results on a productivity increase in the assembly line of the factory floor. Let’s take BMW as an example. The automotive giant customizes hand tools for their line production staff. These customized versions are ergonomically designed and are 72% lighter than the original counterparts. According to Deloitte, BMW’s customization of these hand tools helped the company reduce the overall costs and the project time by 58% and 92%, respectively.

Curious about the cost for custom 3D printed parts?

Upload your files to get prices and lead times. It's free and easy.

Decreasing tooling costs

Automotive OEMs prepare tooling and investment castings for a specific component during the design phase of a new product. As the preparation of tooling and castings for particular designs happens well before production starts, manufacturers are usually faced with one expensive and time-consuming problem: every time there is a change in design means that tooling will also need to be adjusted.

Another advantage of AM is that it enables companies to be less dependent on tooling and casting since it allows for the creation of prototypes that do not require either of them. According to Ford, developing and creating a prototype for an engine manifold with traditional manufacturing can take up to four months and cost around half a million dollars. However, with 3D printing, the company was able to develop several iterations in only 4 days and 99.4% cheaper – only $3000. In the video below Ford explains how they use additive manufacturing, check it out.

Inventory reduction

An important competition aspect of the sector’s aftermarket segment consists of the availability and the time to deliver parts. The majority of part distributors tends to keep in stock only the most common sold parts due to the high prices of maintaining an inventory of parts which are sold sporadically. For that reason, low demand and high-priced parts are usually kept at remote locations.

Another segment of the market which has a similar problem in regards to demand is the performance parts segment. As most consumers consider these optional parts a luxury, distributors are faced with a high fluctuation in demand.

A great solution to solve that issue and quickly supply the demand for less requested components lies in the capabilities to produce parts on-demand using 3D printing technologies. Not only will distributors be able to maintain the availability of these components without the need for inventory but also will experience a reduction in operational costs. One company taking advantage of additive manufacturing to create replacements for spare parts of its classic cars is Porsche. The production run for this type of vehicles is extremely short and, as a consequence, the costs of storing replacement components are nearly prohibitive. Therefore, the company is using the technology to make these rare components available for collectors.

But the distributors of these 2 segments are not the only ones that can benefit from on-demand production. Additive Manufacturing may also be the ideal way to go to supply parts for vintage vehicles and more recent models that are not in production anymore. If combined with 3D scanners, dealers and consumers are able to easily scan the design of the component and replace it with a 3D printed functional part. If this seems farfetched to you, I am pleased to tell you that it is already happening. The American television host and vintage car collector, Jay Leno, owns over 280 vehicles. His collection is estimated to be worth more than $50 million. Leno uses a software known as Rapidform, which was acquired by 3D systems in 2012, to transform 3D scan data into a CAD model enabling him to 3D print and replace components for his car collection.

Weight reduction driven by the complexity of designs

Fuel efficiency improvement is a constant effort amongst carmakers due to the rise in demand for compliance of industry standards and for the revenue growth it generates through delivering value to consumers. Weight reduction is certainly one of the ways to go to improve mileage in automotive vehicles. Additive Manufacturing provides car manufacturers with the ability to perform alterations at a structural level of the desired parts. The redesign of these parts using lattice structures does not compromise its structural strength and results in significant weight reductions.

The aerospace industry is a great example of how the automotive sector can use additive manufacturing to produce lighter cars. Since fuel accounts for a third of the revenues, reducing the aircraft’s weight is crucial. Airbus, for instance, uses AM to produce lightweight versions of components used in all their aircraft. The company used direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) to optimize the design of nacelle hinge brackets for the Airbus A320. The additive manufactured part was 64% lighter and it was still as strong as its counterpart, without any decrease in performance.

Part simplification leads to a shorter assembly process and lower production cost

One of the major limitations of traditional manufacturing techniques is the lack of flexibility when designing components. As a result, one component may require a large number of parts. The problem with that lies in the fact that every new part added results on a longer and more complicated assembly process.

Additive manufacturing enables companies to create complex designs that require fewer parts to produce these components. Consequently, companies are able to decrease the assembly time and also experience a reduction in quality problems.

Delphi, an Irish tier 1 supplier for the automotive industry, was able to make an aluminum diesel pump as a single piece using a metal 3D printing technique known as Selective Laser Melting. By doing so, the company achieved an impressive reduction in the number of parts needed for the pump which prevented a number of postprocessing steps and simplified the assembly process. The end result was a final product of higher quality, since it decreased the fluid low time and is less susceptible to leakage, and with lower production costs.

Simplified supply chain

The automotive sector currently operates with gigantic supply chains. Each OEM deals with hundreds, if not thousands of companies that supply different automotive components. This requires an extremely efficient and complex supply chain management process which requires a lot of time and money. For that reason, OEMs are starting to put a lot of effort to simplify their supply chain.

During the third quarter of 2013, Ford announced plans to decrease the number of suppliers in 40% – for the record, the company was sourcing components and parts from more than 1250 companies. As the American automaker became faster at producing innovative parts with little involvement from suppliers, they saw an opportunity to decrease time and money spent on sourcing parts.


Clearly, the times of additive manufacturing being used solely for quick prototypes are gone. The automotive industry is an amazing example of what can be achieved with the technology at all stages of the production process. In fact, I dare to say that automotive companies must accept the harsh reality of “transform or die”. If they want to survive and succeed in this changing environment, they must embrace additive manufacturing and start exploring its potential as soon as possible. Otherwise, the likelihood of a future where they no longer exist is very high.