3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is gaining the attention of truck makers who prefer “growing” parts in small numbers to investing in expensive production tooling.
Two years after diving into additive manufacturing Mercedes-Benz Trucks now offers about 30 spare parts in any quantity at the push of a button.
Additive manufacturing is the industry term for joining materials by layering to make objects from three-dimensional math data. It uses tiny particles of plastic, metal and composites to construct a wide array of products that vary from dental crowns to airplane engine parts. Businesses are turning to the technology to save money on tooling, reduce parts inventories and speed manufacturing.
“The challenge in the spare parts business lies in securing supply even for model series which are no longer produced,” said Stefan Kurschner, senior vice president of aftermarket for Daimler Trucks North America. “Tools often have to be retained and maintained for years. With the 3D printing process, these challenges are a thing of the past.”
One of Daimler’s early 3D projects was a thermostat cover for a European Unimog truck model that it stopped producing 15 years ago.
“The trucking fleets will see it mostly in the aftermarket because of legacy components in the older equipment,” said Eric Starks, chief executive of FTR Transportation Intelligence. “Most [new] trucks have some type of additive manufactured component. But I don’t think the average buyer understands that.”
Volvo Trucks North America is using 3D printing to make customized clamps used to route wiring from a vehicle’s driver information center for customers who want a different setup.
“Depending on volume, there are many items that it just makes sense to print in house,” spokesman Brandon Borgna said. For example, Volvo created a 3D-printed fixture that helps assembly workers keep more than a dozen spark plugs in the right order for installation at its plant in Dublin, Va. It uses a variety of 3D-printed tools, fixtures, jigs and gauges in the production process.
“We’ve identified low-run but critical components inside the interior where it is more cost efficient to 3D print on demand,” said Jon Walker, automotive specialist at3D printing supplier EOS North America.
“There’s a ton of stuff inside the cabin for function and personalization.”
In late 2017, Renault Trucks showed a 3D-printed version of a prototype Euro 6 engine that it tested for 600 hours. The number of parts was reduced from 841 to about 600. The engine weight dropped from 1,155 pounds (525kg) to 880 pounds (400 kg).
“If you can consolidate two or more parts into one, that’s one of the benefits,” said Terry Wohlers, an additive manufacturing expert and president of Wohlers & Associates. “You can build really complex parts where you’re taking five parts or 15 parts and consolidating them into one. That dramatically changes the economics.
“It really comes down to how creative can the designer get and really understand design for additive manufacturing.”
Moreover, 3D-printed part quality is equal to other manufactured parts for strength and dimensional accuracy, he said.
The Renault example is at the far end of 3D printing achievements. A recent McKinsey & Co. digital manufacturing survey found that although 54 percent of automakers surveyed in seven countries had tried 3D printing, only 4 percent had taken it to scale use. For suppliers, 54 percent also had 3D-printing pilot programs.
“We’re just getting our toes in there,” said Scott Hart, a senior prototyping engineer at a Tenneco Automotive R&D facility in Milan, Ohio, who tests engineered rubber to reduce noise, vibration and harshness for cars and trucks. “I think 3D printing is something we’re looking at to give us another advantage.”
Starks sees 3D printing addressing current and long-term supply chain issues, including the driver shortage and customer delivery expectations created in part by Amazon Prime’s two-day delivery pledge.
If trucks are delivering raw materials for additive manufacturing and products are produced closer to where they are needed “you change how freight moves and how many people you need.”
Though less exciting than advances like electrification, he said 3D printing will have a greater impact.
It also will help keep trucks on the road.
“If you have a $150,000 to $200,000 truck sitting idle because you can’t get that component for a week, and you can have that part in a couple of hours [at] a premium price, I guarantee you are going to pay that price,” Starks said.