In the early days of 3D printing, 3D printers were only used for rapid prototyping and aesthetic projects. However, FDM 3D printers’ ability to make functional parts from high-performance thermoplastics made them complete manufacturing machines.
The main focus here is to give you some clues about FDM 3D printers and their applications and impacts on the world. Of course, there are many domestic and aesthetic uses for FDM 3D printing. However, it’s better to know the ones that expanded the market.
What are the main applications of FDM 3D printing?
3D printing is a noteworthy manufacturing method option whenever:
- First, the product has a complex shape, and it should become customized.
- Second, the product’s demand is low in number(500 per year as a thumb rule).
For example, a medical prosthesis is only suitable for one patient. Hence, we need one customized part. Here 3D printing is the ideal production method.
Another great example is jigs and fixtures. These are tools used to position workpieces for CNC machines, and they help with the assembly of parts. CNC milling machines traditionally make jigs and fixtures with a high tolerance.
Their primary purpose is to locate and hold the workpiece in the desired position precisely.
And that means that a high level of customization and low production volume is needed to create jigs and fixtures; It results in increased costs and longer production times. Thus, 3D printing can be an excellent alternative for traditional CNC machining jigs and fixtures.
In the following, we will name huge companies that use 3D printers to create jigs and fixtures and highly customized car parts.
The automotive industry is one of the pioneers in applying 3d printing technology in various aspects. We can find noticeable 3D printing projects from leading manufacturers.
For example, Ford bought the third 3D printer ever made in 1988. This company has now invested around 45 million dollars in its manufacturing center.
At the beginning of 2020, Ford Performance, the high-performance division at Ford Motor Company, started 3D printing the aluminum manifold inlet. This component had a complex shape, and it was hard to manufacture using traditional processes.
Finally, it took around 120 hours to completely print and later install it in a 1977 Ford F-150 Hoonitruck.
Ford’s long-term goal is to integrate this into its missions and scale AM to an integral manufacturing method.
Volkswagon is one of the manufacturers that use FDM 3D printing technology to create a wide range of products. Jigs and fixtures, toolings, and prototypes are the most common ones. Using FDM 3D printers to develop costume jigs and tooling in low volumes has saved this company hundreds of dollars for each product.
Volkswagon group also introduced Bugatti’s largest functional component made by additive manufacturing technology in 2019. It was a good milestone that proved the company is leading the way in additive manufacturing.
Even though Volkswagon uses FDM technology for many projects, its vision for 2021 is to industrialize mass production of safety-certified metal parts. To reach this goal, Volkswagon partnered up with HP to use the ‘HP Metal Jet’ and speed up production lines.
BMW has shown notable successful examples of implementing 3D printers in their works. The company already exceeded the significant mark of one million full 3D printed pieces in 2010 and aims for 10000 individual parts per year. The company also utilizes 3D printing to manufacture most convertible roof brackets and window guide rails.
It’s also worth mentioning that BMW used metal 3D printing technology to produce the M85Oi Coupe Night Sky Edition’s entire brake caliper. The 3D printed metal parts of the BMW i8 Roadster are shown in the video below:
If you like the gorgeous design of BMW’s latest sports car, you can download the mini scaled model’s free STL file on their website.
While most companies try to use 3D printing as rapid prototyping and customization technology, some companies strive to create fully printed cars! One of the companies that insisted on this goal was Local Motors.
This company overwhelmed the majority by announcing its first fully 3D printed car named Strati at IMTS (International Manufacturing Technology Show). After two years, Local Motors revealed another 3D printed electric shuttle designed for low-speed public transportation. The machine, named Olli, is suitable for university campuses, urban centers in cities, and hospitals. Local Motors can print an Olli in ten hours.
Injection molding machines can create more substantial parts in a matter of seconds. However, the initial price for the device and mold making is high. In contrast, 3D printers can create custom products in low volume with high cost-efficiency. Thus, it’s expected to use them in different business models.
Speaking of business models, Local Motors owes its existence to its digital manufacturing. This way, the company can compete with industry experts’ global community using co-creating customized designs. The usage of FDM 3D printing technology and mini-factories are the keys to Local Motor’s success.
The aerospace industry is also one of the pioneers of applying 3D printing technology back in the 1980s. Today, this industry has a high adoption of various 3D printing technologies.
The aerospace market is estimated to grow beyond three million dollars by 2022. It’s mainly because of the drastically increasing demand for strong, lightweight, and customized 3D printed parts for aircraft. You can find the detailed article here.
As we mentioned earlier, low production quantities, complexity, and the need for unique prototypes created many opportunities for 3D printers.
Common aerospace applications
If you know the aerospace industry, you’ve probably seen some plastic turbine models called surrogates. They are mainly used for education and training purposes, but they can act as placeholders too. This way, they are placed in a space where a part is missing, and they will be installed in the final assembly.
By doing this, we can eliminate human errors and secure the process. Most air force bases use surrogate pieces on their production floor.
Jigs and Fixtures
As mentioned before, 3D printing jigs and fixtures are good candidates due to their low quantity production and customized shapes. Hence, these tools are 3D printed in various industries, and aerospace isn’t an exception.
Visual and Functional Prototypes
Making visual prototypes is probably one of the most common applications of FDM 3D printing. Due to aerospace designs and each part’s complexity, most engineers like to create sample prototypes to validate their work before creating the actual product.
In comparison, many designs need to pass aerodynamic tests and become validated. To do this, aerospace engineers can simulate the final design with a downscaled model with dimensional analyses and wind tunnels.
Even though standard FDM printers can mostly do the task, big companies prefer to use more advanced 3D printing methods like Metal Jetting. This way, the output will have superior surface finishes, which are crucial for wind tunnel tests.
The mentioned examples were a small portion of 3D printing applications. To know how often 3D printing is used in the aerospace industry, It would be best to check some case studies from famous companies.
Although Airbus started using 3D printers later than others, it became a strong supporter of the aerospace industry’s technology. The Airbus A350 XWB is a great example. It contains over one thousand 3D printed pieces, including high-performance plastics and engineering materials.
Additionally, Airbus started co-operating with Local Motor Industries to develop two models of eVTOLs (short for electrical vertical take-off and landing vehicles). These machines are designed to be taxi drones.
NASA uses several additive manufacturing methods for its space exploration. It might be fascinating to know that NASA sends over 3000 kg of spare pieces to the International Space Station every year. Thus, the company’s primary focus is to lighten the loads and reduce space transportation costs.
To reach this goal, in partnership with Made in Space, NASA has 3D printed various designs of 3D printed polymer fixtures and functional parts that can replace multi-part devices. This way, The initial cost and weight will drastically drop.
They also designed a polymer recycling machine. The polymer recycler can improve sustainability in long-duration missions by recycling polymers; It takes raw materials and converts them to reusable FDM printer filaments.
We discussed some of the several applications of FDM 3D printing in various industries. Seeing different examples can help and motivate you to imagine and discover new ones.
In conclusion, this article aims to show you how 3D printing can best suit more flexible business models. Now, wherever you recognize the need for a customized product in low quantity, you will see an opportunity.