Truck manufacturers are turning their attention to 3D printed parts instead of traditional methods of production.
Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Renault have all embraced the technology where parts can be created at the push of a button.
‘Additive manufacturing’ is the industry term for joining materials by layering to make objects from three-dimensional data. It uses tiny particles of plastic, metal or composites to construct a wide array of products, including truck parts.
Mercedes-Benz Trucks is utilising the technology to great effect. Two years after venturing into additive manufacturing the German truck maker now offers about 30 spare parts that have been constructed in this way. One of its early 3D projects was a thermostat cover for a European Unimog truck model that it stopped producing 15 years ago. This eliminated the need to build, or find, appropriate tooling for that part.
“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.”
Eric Starks, chief executive of FTR Transportation Intelligence, said, “The trucking fleets will see it mostly in the aftermarket because of legacy components in the older equipment. Most [new] trucks have some type of additive manufactured component.”
Volvo Trucks North America is also using 3D printing technology to make customised clamps that help to route wiring from a vehicle’s driver information centre.
Another adopter of the technology is Renault Trucks. In late 2017, the company showed a 3D-printed version of a prototype Euro 6 engine. The number of parts was reduced from 841 to about 600 and the engine weight dropped from 525kg to 400kg.
The Renault example is at the far end of 3D printing achievements, but it may well take a while before it is fully adopted on a massive scale. A recent McKinsey & Co. digital manufacturing survey found that although 54% of vehicle makers surveyed in seven countries had tried 3D printing, only 4% had taken it to scale use. For suppliers, 54% also had 3D-printing pilot programs.
Terry Wohlers, an additive manufacturing expert and president of Wohlers & Associates, said, “If you can consolidate two or more parts into one, that’s one of the benefits. You can build complex parts where you’re taking five parts or 15 parts and consolidating them into one. That dramatically changes the economics.”
He added that 3D-printed part quality is equal to other manufactured parts for strength and dimensional accuracy.