Volkswagen’s big move into 3D printing

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In a first step, VW will use the new 3D printing process to print design elements, such as individualized acceleration buttons in small production series. Photo credit: Volkswagen

FRANKFURT – Volkswagen Group is working with HP, the world's largest manufacturer of personal computers, to integrate mass production of 3D metal parts into vehicle production.

HP developed the "Metal Jet" printer, which uses the British engineering firm GKN to produce parts for Volkswagen, the first car manufacturer to use the technology.

Unlike traditional 3D printers, the new process uses an additive process where parts are produced layer by layer using a powder and a binder. The part is then "baked" in a metal component in the so-called sintering process. This differs from earlier processes where powder is melted by means of a laser, which is considerably more expensive, VW said in a statement.

The biggest advantage of this new method is that it improves productivity fifty times compared to other 3D printing methods, depending on the component, says VW. For the first time, mass production of 3D parts has become a reality in the automotive industry, the automaker said.

GKN, which makes more than 3 billion components per year, expects that it will be able to print millions of production parts from the system for VW next year. Initially, VW will start with cosmetic items such as customized car key rings and nameplates that drivers can put on their boot lid or door.

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The first mass-produced "structural" components for the automaker's vehicles are expected within two to three years.

Although VW expects that the use of 3D-generated components will increase over time, it says that at a higher volume, other production methods are still more efficient.

"The right place for 3D printing technologies is not in gigantic numbers in vehicles like the Gulf," said Sven Crull, head of VW for new production technologies. "There is a better use-case in more specialized parts for vehicles with a volume of 50,000 to half a million."

Bloomberg contributed to this report