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Volkswagen Sees a Future in 3D Printing Car Parts

The auto giant is using the technology to cut costs and production time.

Imagine: A laser fuses layer after layer of razor-thin powder until it forms a solid metal shape. This process, known as 3D printing, is Volkswagen’s newest method to create car parts.

Last year, Volkswagen Autoeuropa began to 3D-print parts for its machines that create car parts. The factory produced more than 1,000 machine tools last year, which saved the company $160,000 in assembly line components. Now, the company is using the process to create car parts.

VW makes 3D-printed gear shifters, water connectors for engines, and metal pieces to connect door handles to leather interiors. In May, the company created 3D-printed side and loudspeaker trims for the Worthersee GTI Volkswagen, a show car at the company’s plant in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Printing is performed on site, eliminating lead time, lowering production costs, and even freeing up space in manufacturing plants.

The process can also produce lighter-weight car parts. For example, a 3D-printed A-pillar window support weighs 74 percent less than the original piece. This, in turn, makes the car more fuel efficient, cutting costs for the customer.

According to Knuth Walczak, head of Porsche’s innovation and development management department, “Even highly stressed parts like pistons can be printed. Because the material is laid layer upon layer, you can systematically affect the microstructure. The mechanical properties differ significantly from those of conventionally produced parts.”

Small, complex parts are the easiest, most effective models for 3D printing, while larger parts will continue to be produced traditionally.

Jörg Spindler, who heads equipment and metal forming at Audi’s Competence Center in Ingolstadt, Germany, said the process doesn’t pay off until around 200 of each item are made, and larger items like engines can take more than 100 hours produce.

3D printing isn’t a total replacement for manufacturing, but rather a step in the right direction.

“The new technology will not replace conventional processes,” Spindler said. “But it will create new, fascinating possibilities.”

The company will continue to conduct research in 3D printing at the Audi Competence Center. VW just announced that it would invest $14 billion in its Germany plant from 2018 to 2025. The money will go toward VW’s technology strategy, which will focus on producing electric cars that will include 3D-printed parts.