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The Role of Additive Manufacturing in Canada’s Automotive Industry

By: Ali Emamian – Research Council Officer and Application Engineer at NRC- Automotive and Surface Transportation Portfolio (AST)

  • Additive manufacturing enables OEM to react to constrains in order to increase the efficiency and cost effectiveness.
  • AM helps the automotive industry to create opportunities to produce tooling and fixturing in minimal time and to avoid delays in receiving tooling and parts from suppliers.
  • Benefits of AM includes flexibility to create custom tooling, reducing inventories of tooling and fixturing needs, and the ability to repair or remanufacture tools using processes such as Direct Energy Deposition.

Automotive Industry in Canada
The automotive sector is one of the most important industries in Canada. One in seven Canadians are either directly or indirectly employed in the automotive industry. It is one of Canada’s most strategic business sectors and is the single biggest contributor to Canada’s manufacturing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (12% nationally; over 20% in Ontario alone). The auto sector directly employs over 550,000 Canadians across the country in 11 light-duty and 3 heavy-duty vehicle and assembly plants, more than 550 major component and OEM auto parts manufacturing operations, 3,949 dealerships, and aftermarket automotive product and service retailers. There are hundreds of thousands of additional Canadians whose jobs are in industries that support the auto industry; including transportation, financial services, mining, steel, chemicals, oil and gas, aluminum, and high tech just to name a few. Chrysler, Ford and General Motors along with their dealers directly employ some 102,000 Canadians and directly support an additional 50,000 Canadian retires.

The auto industry’s export orientation (roughly 85% of vehicle production and 60% of all parts production is exported) is a key source of foreign exchange.

Important coming change is intelligent cars that sense the world around them is more fuel efficient and safer. Ontario could be a winner in this scenario by investing on emerging technologies such as additive manufacturing and smart tooling in automotive industry. National Research Council of Canada (NRC), helps and supports industries in this regard by conducting research, industrial collaborations and technical services.

Direct Employment 120,000
Total Employment (counting “spin-off” jobs) over 400,000
Total Shipments
    Assembly $56 billion
    Parts $27 billion
Total GDP $17 billion value-added
Exports $66 billion (second-most important export industry)
Productivity $210,000 per worker per year (assembly)
Average Annual Incomes
    Assembly $72,000
       Parts $55,000

Table 1. Canada’s auto industry by the numbers -Sources: Unifor, Statistics Canada, Industry Canada-2014

Mold, Tool, and Die (MTD)
Mold, die and tools are the key elements for manufacturing in the automotive sector. Generally, the word “tool” is a common term for many industrial sectors but in this document tool means any mean that use to cut, and to form metal and other materials. Dies are made of metal and used for forging, stamping and shaping the materials, specifically metals. Molds are used to shape powder metals, composites, or liquid metal.

Mold tool, and die makers (MTDM) industry is a highly skilled job and requires technical people with specific expertise in machining alloys, inspection and metrologies. On the other hand, mechanical and materials engineers play a crucial role in effective designs and materials selections, respectively. Proper team work results in more MTDM durability, appropriate dimension accuracy and less failure in service that all save millions of dollars for the automotive sectors.

Injection moulding tools are most widely manufactured with conven­tional processes such as milling, lathe or CNC lathe. Over the years these conventional manufacturing processes have developed with the onset of computer aided technology used for designing tools, high-speed machining, improved precision and process automation.

Injection moulding is a $170 billion global industry and the manufacturer of a multitude of consumer products. In 2010 alone the US plastics industry produced an estimated 7 billion kg of injection-moulded products for applications in packaging, electronics, household goods and biomedical areas. Although this technology has led to the faster production of tools, product development cycles are still long and expensive. Tooling costs account for 15% of injection moulded part costs; however, considering global competition and the require­ment for shorter manufacturing times, innovative manufacturing methods for tool production such as Additive Manufacturing have been explored to manufacture tools for injection moulding.

Moulding cycle times account for 35% of the part cost and innovative mould designs and materials using Additive Manufacturing appear to offer the promise for further impacting the cost-per-part produced by injection moulding. The rising industrial mold imports originate largely in Japan, the Netherlands, China, Germany and South Korea. When Canadian molds are included, these six countries account for nearly 90% of all mold imports, with Japan alone accounting for nearly half.

Tool and die imports have risen by about 22% since 1997, with Japan and Canada remaining the top two origins. The mandate to have lighter vehicles and more environmental friendly vehicles in one hand return the MTDM to stable market and on the other hand it introduces them to new challenges, which is undertaking the use of new technologies and novel materials.

Automotive Sector in Ontario
Ontario is one of the most important and strategic location for Automotive sector in Canada and Windsor region in Canada is a strategic North American Centre for automotive and equipment.

Although after recession in 2008, many automotive industry and mould, tool and die makers (MTDMs) were affected and did not have any choices but downsizing or closing. Number of workforces became half of than that of 2000. Trend of growth started again in 2011 and since then MTDM companies are looking to expand their activities and some of them are considering using emerging technologies to reduce the cost and increase efficiency. Many economics predict the extraordinary growth for automotive sector in next 5-8 years. Some automakers have planned to add 60 to 70 new lines in next couple of years.

Within Canada the tool die and moldmaking industry is closely tied to the automotive industry. The industry has weathered the recent recession and there is a current trend to reshore work to protect intellectual property and reduce the travel costs of molds. Cost competition from Mexico remains a concern as does the exchange rate, particularly fluctuations (it is best if $CA around 80-85 cents US).

Additive Manufacturing in Automotive Industry
Today studies show that automotive industry needs to give more attention to revenue. There are some factors that are retarding the trade in vehicles  (specifically brand new ones). For example, more people are working from home, decreasing the mileage and wear and tear they put on their cars, and theoretically prolonging their cars’ lives. In addition, fewer people of driving age have licenses, as a significant number of people have opted to live near and use mass transportation. In the first quarter of 2005, the average length of new vehicle ownership was 50 months. In the first quarter of 2016, it was 77.8 months. High rate of car insurance for young drivers who are the main targets for OEMs specifically for sport and luxury cars, new phenomena such as Uber and carpool are some of the examples affecting the automotive market.

Additive manufacturing enables OEM to react to these constrains in order to increase the efficiency and cost effectiveness where both can help to reduce the price for vehicles in the market. This technology also can bring an excellent opportunity for OEMs and even smaller automotive producers to customize and personalize the vehicle based on customer needs and conditions.

AM helps the automotive industry to create opportunities to produce tooling and fixturing in minimal time and to avoid delays in receiving tooling and parts from suppliers. Two benefits of this technology include the flexibility to create custom tooling, reducing inventories of tooling and fixturing needs, and the ability to repair or remanufacture tools using processes such as Direct Energy Deposition.

OEMs were asked for reduction of components weights through novel designs and materials without sacrificing the safety until 2020. AM processes are potential ways to design, manufacture, material and part development, which result in clean, lighter and safer products.

AM has played a crucial role in making prototypes and re-engineering in the last two decades. Moreover, prototypes can be tested and evaluated before spending a considerable amount of money for dies and tool making. Reducing time to market, reducing production cost by minimizing the number of tools and ability to change design are some examples of AM’s advantages. Nowadays, scientists and engineers believe that AM is nothing less than extraordinary to consider as a manufacturing process for final parts. This approach can alter the business models of OEMs and tier 1 and 2 suppliers. Using additive manufacturing as a process to produce final products (instead of just prototyping). But still need some knowledge to understand the difference between conventional methods and AM in terms of design, materials and cost. In this author’s opinion the first and most important rule to know is that AM is not and never has been a competitor for conventional manufacturing such as forging and casting. Therefore, AM might not be an ideal process for all parts. Part size, shape, materials, production rate, and design are the main factors that should be considered since AM has its own constrains. However, this technology brings unique opportunities, for example, parts with complexity in design such as internal freeform for functionality and performance (conformal cooling, wiring channels) enables industry to optimize the design. In tools and dies the optimized design can minimize the cooling cycle and increase the production rate and bring on a higher life span to molds.

The second rule is that as of today AM is not a possible choice for mass production of parts and components. Instead, industries should search for specific applications that support the mass production in efficient ways. One example AM can be used for tools manufacturing (especially more complex pieces, such as those with conformal cooling channels) but at the same time can be a substitute for expensive tooling equipment (with shorter development and manufacturing time). In addition, replacement and maintenance of tooling becomes easier, faster and more cost-effective because AM allows spare parts to be produced ‘just in time’.

Other approaches can be producing single pieces to avoid several post processing resulting in final products with less risk of leakage and minimizing or eliminating the assembly in tools and dies should be the main scope for AM in automotive industry.

Challenges in AM
Of course nobody doubts the benefits of AM, but the main reason that AM is not implemented, as a full trusted manufacturing process is the challenges in adopting this technology. Some of them are discussed below.

Of course AM machines and materials that can be used in AM are pricy, but with the benefits that are offered by AM, it is very reasonable. Firstly, I believe the reason that industry cannot adopt AM technology is not the capital investments. Personally, I do not think that OEMs have any problems to invest on this technology. It is because of limited to low volume production of parts with this technology that does not satisfy OEM expectation of higher volume production. Although some of OEMs confess to a dramatic cost reduction in prototyping (previous example 4 month conventional prototyping with 500,000$ compared to 4 weeks and 3000$), they also expect AM to contribute in mass production but AM is not yet at that stage.

Secondly, there is no need to buy a machine in the beginning in order to adopt this technology. My recommendation is hiring a service bureaus or research centers such as NRC. These research centers can develop parts, or accessories to assure industries performance. In other words, industries can gradually adopt the technology when they feel comfortable to have their own machines. OEMS and Tier one, also have this chance to observe capabilities of different AM machines available at research centers and help make accurate choices if and when they decide to purchase AM machine(s).

Materials and certification:
Machine providers can guarantee the mechanical properties of material (feedstock) that they supply. It means some machines cannot be run if the feedstock is not the original one. This adds limitations to functionality of AM and increases the costs since the number of alloys that can be compatible with this technology is very limited. Small range of material groups have been certified to us that bring road blocks in manufacturing by AM technology compared to conventional manufacturing methods, such as casting with almost no materials constrains.

Part size:
One of the main questions remaining for many OEMs is how big the parts can be by the limited build envelope. In my opinion it is not a non-addressable problem compared to other AM limitations. All AM machines need is the bigger envelope size that might involve in some research and development and apply that to current size results for machine developers. Let’s assume that it becomes possible to develop a full size engine with all details and features with minimum necessary post processing. This scenario can change the automotive industry road map.

What items Industry needs to adopt AM successfully?
In current manufacturing processes, parts are assembled together to deliver final parts. This includes large numbers of supply chains involved creating a complexity in supply chain management. Moreover, when number of parts is increased, price, and complexity of assembly also increases. Now consider that AM produce a part that overcome the need for multi components and parts for assembly and decrease the length of supply chains. This is game changer approach to manufacturing that brings benefit not just for the money and time, but for quality and uniformity in part production offered by AM. Growth in adoption of AM in automotive industry impacts on supply chains that might need separate investigations. Just in time production (JIT) by AM can put many suppliers out of the business since they cannot adampt to this radical change in their manufacturing.

In order to be successful in adopting additive manufacturing in creating dies and molds as quick as possible, the first need would be research and development. This needs funding, training or hire new high-qualified people (HQP) and working closely with universities. It is worth noting that the author of this document strongly believes that research and development has to be conducted at research centers to address industry problems. The objective is to obtain reliable process parameters and materials for commercialization after conducting certain numbers of tests and certifications.

Currently, most of the automotive industries are looking into AM capabilities and opportunities offered by this technology without major change in their business model. To the best of this author’s knowledge prototyping for part demonstration, design feasibility, and conduct testing are the main activities for OEMs and Tier one suppliers.

It is worth noting that down the road, investing, particularly in AM offers flexibility in scale and scope at the same time. It means smaller automotive producers and custom built cars/parts can enter and be active in the market. Currently major OEMs cannot offer custom built cars/parts because of the high cost of tools and dies.