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Volkswagen's big move into 3D printing

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

FRANKFURT — Volkswagen Group is working with HP, the world’s largest maker of personal computers, to integrate the mass production of 3D metal parts into its vehicle manufacturing.

HP has developed the “Metal Jet” printer, which UK engineering firm GKN is using to produce parts for Volkswagen, the first automaker to use the technology.

In contrast to traditional 3D printers, the new process uses an additive process in which parts are produced layer by layer using a powder and binder. The component is then “baked” into a metallic component in the so-called sintering process. This differs from previous processes in which powder is melted by means of a laser, which is significantly more expensive, VW said in a statement.

The biggest advantage to this new method is that it improves productivity by fifty times compared to other 3D printing methods, depending on the component, VW says. 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 a year, expects to be able to print millions of production-grade parts using the system as early as next year for VW. Initially, VW will start out with cosmetic items such as customized car key rings and nameplates that drivers can put on their trunk lid or door.

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

While VW expects to increase the use of 3D-generated parts over time, it says that at higher volume, other manufacturing methods still remain more economical.

“The sweet spot of 3-D printing technologies is not in giant numbers in vehicles like the Golf,” said Sven Crull, VW’s head of design for new manufacturing technologies. “There is a better use case in more specialty parts for vehicles with volume of 50,000 to half a million.”

Bloomberg contributed to this report

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