3D-printed composite tooling could have many benefits, but automakers have to make sure it’s ready for the assembly line.

Additive manufacturing (AM), now used extensively for vehicle prototyping, is gaining traction in other parts of the automotive production process as well. In a 2018 report, Additive Manufacturing Breaks Innovation Barriers, SmarTech Publishing says that the automotive industry is “racing toward full industrialization and integration of the AM process within their end-to-end production workflow.” It notes that 3D printing is well-positioned to expand its use as the primary technology for both automotive prototyping and tooling.

But automakers must overcome several obstacles before 3D-printed composite tooling gains widespread acceptance. They need to educate their tooling suppliers about the technology and develop design standards to ensure that the tooling can stand up to production line demands.

General Motors’ manufacturing engineering group started testing AM tooling for some manufacturing support applications a few years ago. The company has focused primarily on pre-production operations, which include the manufacture of a small number of pre-launch vehicles to validate parts. Instead of the 100,000 to 500,000 vehicles a typical assembly plant might churn out, pre-production facilities may build just 50 vehicles over three or four months.

That makes pre-production a good testing ground for AM composite tools. “We have a lot of smaller, low-risk applications that are not carrying heavy loads and that don’t have any safety implications,” says Dominick Lentine, team leader for GM’s manufacturing engineering group for AM technology. “So much of the work in our assembly plants is high-volume, high-rate, high-risk automated equipment, whereas in the pre-production areas it’s more hand builds and hand tools.” If there’s a problem with a new tool in pre-production, there’s much less impact than there would be with a part failure that might bring a large assembly line to a halt.

3D Printing Advantages

Automakers are interested in printed composite tooling for three main reasons: reduced weight, shortened lead times and lower costs.

Production line operators experience less ergonomic stress when they use a lightweight composite tool instead of a heavier metal one. “That ties into vehicle quality, because they are getting the job done better on the line with these 3D-printed tools,” says George Russell, automotive segment leader in the Americas for Stratasys, a 3D printing solutions provider.

Printed tooling can reduce robots’ payloads by 50 to 100 pounds, enabling automakers to save money by using smaller robots, adds Lentine. With the smaller payload, robots can move and decelerate more quickly, reducing the amount of floor space they require to operate and cutting cycle times.