Volkswagen moves to mass customization, aims for over 100,000 3D printed units per year

Earlier this week, German automaker Volkswagen was confirmed as an early-access customer of the HP Metal Jet 3D printer. Now, comments from Dr. Martin Goede, Volkswagen’s Head of Technology Planning and Development, reveal further details about the company’s plans for this new metal binder jet technology, and the prospective future of mass customized vehicles.

“Automotive production is facing major challenges: our customers are increasingly expecting more personalization options. At the same time, complexity is increasing with the number of new models,” states Dr. Goede. “That’s why we are relying on state-of-the-art technologies to ensure a smooth and fast production,”

“3D printing plays a particularly important role in manufacturing of individual parts.”

3D printing at Volkswagen

In the highly competitive automotive industry, the application of additive manufacturing simply makes sense. Volkswagen in particular has been experimenting with the technology for several years now, though the use cases are only just coming to light.

In 2017, the company revealed details of a pilot 3D printed spare parts initiative. In the same year, the company’s luxury car brands Audi and Porsche demonstrated their drive towards 3D printed “reproduction on demand.” Furthermore, the Volkswagen Autoeuropa factory in Portugal released a case study of 3D printed tooling for car assembly, which would go on to win an accolade in the 2018 3D Printing Industry Awards.

Competitors, of course, are also taking note. In April 2018, BMW Group invested €10 million (approximately $12.3 million) in a specialist Additive Manufacturing Campus. And, alongside EOS and Premium AEROTEC, Daimler is a founding partner of the NextGenAM project for automated and integrated additive manufacturing.

Sample metal 3D printed water connectors for the Audi W12 engine. Photo via Volkswagen AG
Sample metal 3D printed water connectors for the Audi W12 engine. Photo via Volkswagen AG

100,000 3D printed units per year

The first step of implementing the HP Metal Jet at Volkswagen has been a small production series of individualized gear knobs.

With this application, the car manufacturer, working with GKN Powder Metallurgy, has been able to save on lead times by cutting out the need to build custom tooling for the new parts.

The gear knobs can be personalized with lettering requested by the customer, and are expected to be commercially rolled out as soon as possible. Custom lettering for tailgates may also be possible in the future.

Though, Dr. Goede asserts “A complete vehicle will probably not be manufactured by a 3D printer any time soon,” the goal at Volkswagen is “to integrate printed structural parts into the next generation of vehicles as quickly as possible,”

“In the long term,” adds Dr. Goede:

“we expect a continuous increase in unit numbers, part sizes and technical requirements – right up to soccer-size parts of over 100,000 units per year.”

HP Metal Jet Customer Volkswagen_gear shift (1)
HP Metal Jet 3D printed gear shift for Volkswagen. Photo via HP

The proof of concept delivered by the personalized components will help develop 3D printed structural parts for Volkswagen cars, which are expected within two to three years. From 2019, GKN Powder Metallurgy is scheduled to establish an automotive process chain for Volkswagen incorporating its additive manufacturing systems.

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Featured image shows Volkswagen engineers and personalized, 3D printed gear knobs – the start of more to come. Photo via Volkswagen