It’s no secret aerospace engineers love 3D printers. They inspire innovation by encouraging risk; where once parts had to be ordered from third party suppliers and waited for over long periods, now they can be produced additively in-house with ever greater efficiency, reducing the number of parts used as well as their weight – and thus an aircraft’s fuel consumption. In fact, 3D printing saves Boeing $3 million a plane, and industry leaders Lockheed and Airbus have also ramped up their 3D printing capabilities.
Will automakers follow a similar trajectory?
“Not any time soon,” says Biller, owing 3D printing’s success in aerospace to the unique needs of that industry and the small volumes and high manufacturing costs typical of it. “The opposite is true of the auto industry, which is why you don’t see 3D printed parts in every Civic and Focus that roll off the line.”
One 3D Printer If by Land, Two If by… Sky?
Both the automotive and aerospace 3D printing markets are expected to total $1.7 billion in 2021 following robust year-on-year growth at or near 25%. Despite comparable forecast numbers, the relative scale of these markets – and thus 3D printing’s penetration of them – could not be more different. For example, although Ford produced approximately 100,000 3D-printed prototype parts in 2016, that’s only a mere sliver of its total production.
“Right now, 3D printing in automotive is primarily used in design and prototyping. Where it's really growing is in tools, molds, and other production aids,” says Biller. Retooling an assembly line could cost millions and take up to a year to complete; 3D printing can cut that to a few weeks and a fraction of the cost.
These represent the most promising near-term opportunities for 3D printing in the automotive industry.
In the long term? The outlook, as with any inchoate technology, remains hazy.
A Closer Look under the Hood
With the rise of one potentially industry-rocking technology comes a litany of effects, some of which are slower to manifest or less obvious than others. For example, the aerospace industry’s growing adoption of 3D printing is indicating an incipient trend away from metalworking fluids, which currently comprise nearly 15% of industrial lubricants demand and about 7% of total lubricants demand.
Metalworking fluids are primarily used in metal removal (i.e., when metal is cut to form different shapes) and metal forming/drawing (i.e., when a piece of metal is reshaped and doesn’t have any metal removed). When 3D printing a metal part, however, manufacturers often add metal powder (such as powdered titanium) to the 3D printer, which then uses an electron beam to deposit successive layers of the metal to achieve a part; as a result, manufacturers don’t have a need for fluid to remove metal chips or reduce the friction that builds up when grinding metal parts against one another – hence limiting demand for metalworking fluids.
The impact is evident in the aerospace sector if nevertheless negligible given the recency of 3D printing adoption. (Bretz predicts a less than 1% effect on industrial lubricants demand in the short term.) But makers of metalworking fluids are understandably a little nervous about the technology’s potential effect in the longer term.
“My intuition is that a major impact in this segment is unlikely, at least in the short-term, since in recent years a lot of automotive OEMs have shifted production to developing countries to take advantage of low labor costs,” says Bretz, referring to the reluctance of automakers to employ costly 3D printers in making finished parts. For one thing, the current generation of 3D printers are notoriously ill-equipped to process metals in a reliable and cost effective manner. That may change as the technology evolves. There’s no shortage of companies trying to work out these kinks, anyway.
“Having said that,” Bretz adds, “the automotive manufacturing industry is so much larger than the aerospace manufacturing industry that even a much smaller adoption rate of 3D printers among automakers could have a larger negative effect on metalworking fluid demand.”
Want to Learn More?
For more insights from Zoe Biller and Cory Bretz on the global markets for 3D printing and automotive and industrial lubricants, check out some of their recent studies, including:
About the Author:
Peter Kusnic is an Industry Studies editor at the Freedonia Group, where he also writes and edits blogs.