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3D Printing Reshapes Automotive Supply Chain

Efficient supply chains can be identified by a handful of components: proximity, flexibility, and minimal waste. Now, the automotive industry is hoping to capture some of these same benefits through the use of 3D printing. 

Though it hailed 3D printing as the “third industrial revolution” in 2012, The Economist  cautioned that it “is not yet good enough to make a car.” Since then, though, 3D printing, referred to as the additive manufacture in the auto industry, has advanced to the point that car bodies can and have been printed. In future, additive manufacture will likely be an integral part of the car supply chain, and not just at the point of creating models for design or rapid prototyping. 

This past year, Deloitte University Press published a detailed study of the future prospects for car manufacturing in an article titled 3D Opportunity for the Automotive Industry. The value of 3D printing for rapid prototyping and realizing innovative new design has already been established across industries, but it can also be used in manufacturing the end product. That is what has the potential to really transform the supply chain for the car industry.

The report explains that incorporating additive manufacturing into automotive production can increase efficiency by giving more control over both the final parts and the tools of manufacturing to the auto builder.  Using 3D printing to produce finished parts allows the printer to take the place of various other manufacturing tools. The printed parts offer the benefit of enhanced performance efficiency thanks to the lighter weight that can be achieved in additive manufacturing than in traditional forms of fabrication.

Another way printing can improve efficiency is through the development of specialized tools. That's what Nigel Southway said was the truly transformative power of 3D printing in manufacturing here. Companies like BMW have made that use of additive manufacture for hand tools that contributed to a savings of “58% in overall costs” and an impressive reduction in project time of more than 90%, as related in the study.

That kind of reduced lead time allows the manufacturer greater flexibility in responding to market demands In addition to the time saved, there is a saving on material, as printing out just what is needed reduces waste. There is also a savings in capital outlay, as the study says, flexible “on-demand and on-location production” reduces the need for on-hand inventory.  A shortened supply chain that can keep the manufacturing process closer to customers of the final product is also made possible by moving more of the production into a single place.

That kind of localized self-contained manufacturing is the vision set by a car company that intends to bring 3D printed cars to the mainstream market within a year. Local Motors,  printed the carbon fiber of its Strati car body over 44 hours, as it demonstrated live at the 2015 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS).

Local Motors intends to cut its production time by half when the cars are produced in its micro-factories. They are intended to shorten the car supply chain substantially and reduce the expense of tooling with 3D design and manufacturing techniques. Location is also key. Their proximity to cities is intended to cut down on “freight and distribution costs by 97%” plus an expedited trip to the customer.  Local Motors aims to open one hundred of those self-contained buildings for designing, building, demonstrating, and selling innovative cars around the globe over the next decade. Two are scheduled to open in the US this year.

The third industrial revolution has really arrived now, and we may be seeing a whole new paradigm for the manufacturing supply chain in the immediate future. How do you think these technology shifts might benefit other electronics manufacturing sectors?

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