Automotive 3D Printing

Recently I attended the Automotive World show in Tokyo and prepared a white paper to explain our position to potential Japanese auto clients. It was translated to Japanese but I will post the English draft here. The initial reception seemed to be fairly positive but if it converts into action remains to be seen. What is certain is that something must be done or these Japanese auto companies risk falling more behind. When a BYD engineer looks at a 3D printed connecting arm and an engineer from one of the big seven Japanese auto companies looks at the same part and asks if it is the ‘Eiffel tower’ there should be a giant alarm sounding the mind of these automotive executives.

Why 3D Printing is Reducing Weight and
Making Impact in The Automotive Industry.
株式会社3D Printing Corporation

Too much mass?
Generally, the more an automotive vehicle weighs; the lower the performance is, the greater the fuel consumption is, and the more raw input materials required to build it. At scale, the weight of raw materials becomes the largest factor in the cost of production. Meanwhile, performance characteristics, such as vehicle range are desired by consumers. As emission targets become increasingly strict, fuel consumption must become more efficient.



(The trendlines of weight/fuel efficiency are very clear)
Weight reduction is the obvious solution but there are major challenges:
Safety and regulatory constraints
More expensive materials (magnesium vs. aluminum)
Keeping or improving on product experience
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, and it’s salient technological trajectory is the process which is most suitable over the next 20 years of overcoming these challenges and realistically reducing vehicle weight while maintaining safety and minimizing production costs. 3D printing, with its numerous benefits, must become a critical part in an automaker’s long term weight reduction strategy.

What 3D printing actually is

Most automakers are familiar with 3D printing from their prototyping operations. GM for example uses 3D printing on over 20,000 of their parts. (2) But 3D printing is better thought of as a concept of how to manufacture. According to ISO / ASTM52900-15 there are seven distinct 3d printing processes, The following non-exhaustive chart is a better picture of what 3D Printing looks like. (table removed for formatting) (3)

What some automakers are starting to discover is that different 3D printing technologies are suitable for different parts of their businesses. One technology may perform poorly as prototyping tool while having excellent performance for production parts and vice versa. Another 3D Printing system may be a perfect solution for low-cost custom automotive jigs and tooling needed at the manufacturing site but unsuitable for mass production. Understanding the technological map of 3D printing is key for automakers to successfully reap the benefits of this new manufacturing concept.
The number of technologies and machinery in 3D printing is difficult to know entirely but there are some fundamental steps that all 3D printing technologies and systems share:

All 3D printing starts at the data level. If the data in deficient in anyway, no matter the following steps, the end result will inherit this deficiency and perhaps exaggerate it.
3D Printing is currently done on a mesh basis and some new and limited voxel based data. This takes the form of a mesh. A mesh is composed of many small triangles that attempt to form an approximation of the desired shape that was likely designed in a CAD program.
Meshes are difficult to work with for engineering purposes because they are not easily manipulated and are hollow. Part of the challenge for 3D printing in the automotive industry is having the correct tools to smoothly go from CAD -> Mesh Draft -> Mesh repair and correction.

All 3D printers require the newly created mesh to be broken into ‘layers’ that the 3D printing system can interpret as machine instructions. Because this is a critical step in transforming the digital data into a real object and because parameters will vary based on the hardware and technology involved; Almost all 3D printing manufacturers provide some solution alongside their systems to solve this problem.
The complexity of 3D Printing parameters increases as the materials and performance specifications become more specific. In the case of a metal automotive component, travel time of a laser on a powder bed fusion system can change the crystal structure and ultimately the end performance characteristics of the automotive component.
Meeting performance goals of parts requires technical skill with the manufacturing hardware as well as theoretical understanding of the technology.

There has been a deluge of 3D printing manufacturing systems over the last few years. Some very good and innovative, many more derivative and lacking in real performance. Picking the right 3D printing process is the first step to picking the right hardware. Once an understanding of which process is required, you can look for specific technologies amongst a plethora of manufacturers. For the sake of this paper, there are too many to list.
There is often a very step in trade-off in build size. Build size, is large factor in cost/performance. You can expect that if you want to produce large objects, you will either have to sacrifice performance or pay much more for the larger system.
How does 3D Printing reduce automotive weight?

There are three major ways

  • DFAM
  • Topology Optimization
  • High performance geometries

Design for Additive Manufacturing (DFAM)

While it is partly true that 3D printing can make nearly any shape at the automotive scale. There are limitations and considerations that should be taken into account crystal structure of metal, conductivity, and thermal stress are all major factors that vary greatly from traditional manufacturing methods and must be considered before a part can be used successfully in production. This process is called DFAM and involves experienced technicians, engineers, and designers who understand the technology involved and can alter printing parameters and digital data to achieve the desired results. There are a handful of software that try to address this issue but this is still largely done by hand.

Topology Optimization

There are at least 5 distinct methods of topology optimization and dozens of software for topology optimization. The most widespread being variable density method (VDM) and solid-isotropic material with penalization (SIMP) (4) These processes seeks to find the minimum mass required to satisfy a set of engineering parameters. Much of topology optimization is based off research done in the 80’s that tried to answer the question of why human bones are shaped they way they are. This is the reason that often topologically optimized shapes tend to have an ‘organic’ look to them. The first algorithm was adopted to commercial software in the mid 90’s but didn’t see much use due to the limitation of manufacturing technology. Recently, topology optimization has renewed interest due to advances in 3D printing machines.

The reason topology optimization has not seen faster adoption in the automotive industry seems to primarily be a lack of skill to transform the topology optimized computer solutions into real manufacturable products, as derived solutions often have real-world problems. (5)
Nevertheless, topology optimization + 3D printing is a powerful tool as part of a weight reduction strategy due to the extremely promising initial results. For example, a car front hood was topologically optimized to reduce mass by 12% yet still meet engineering requirements.

Structural optimization of automotive front hood (6)
In practice, we observed similar savings to those often reported inside the industry and scholarly literature. In the case of one bracket for a Japanese automaker, mass savings, while meeting engineering requirements and manufacturability requirements, were an excellent 44%.


(basic bracket: 18.35 cm3 optimized bracket: 16.26 cm3 topology optimized: 12.75 cm3 株式会社3D Printing Corporation)

There also also somewhat newer non-density based topology optimization tools that offer many benefits. Built into these design workflows is the manufacturability and the ability to design structures that have multiple properties over the entire part. In this case, as mass reduction on a connecting arm for one Japanese automaker is at 54%.

Design for Additive Manufacturing (DFAM)
While it is partly true that 3D printing can make nearly any shape at the automotive scale. There are limitations and considerations that should be taken into account. Crystallinity of metal, conductivity, and thermal stress are all major factors that vary greatly from traditional manufacturing methods and must be considered before a part can be used successfully in production.(4) This process is called DFAM and requires experienced technicians, engineers, and designers in a collaborative effort to achieve the desired results. (Connecting Rod 株式会社3D Printing Corporation 2017)

As part of a light weighting strategy, DFAM also has two major benefits.

  • Producing complex single part assemblies
  • Innovative/High Performance geometries

When using 3D printing, there is a possibility to combine multiple parts into a single part and eliminate the need for screws or fasteners or otherwise redundant joints. By eliminating these unnecessary parts, the automaker may save weight as simplify the supply chain. The best known example of this is perhaps GE, who, by adopting a 3D printing approach to their aircraft engine, reduced the number of parts by 30%. Meanwhile, they were able increase fuel efficiency by 15% (7)
By increasing individual part performance, automotive designers have a wider range of marginal options, or better trade-offs, to meet performance and safety requirements.

Challenges of adopting 3D printing for Automakers

Speed, cost, and size are the three largest challenges facing automakers. Because of these three factors, it is the opinion of the author that powder bed based systems, while exceptional for prototyping and small batch production, are unlikely the correct solution for automakers looking to adopt 3D printing at a larger scale like medical and aerospace industries have done. Forutently, in the last few years there have been a deluge of technologies that address each of these. Metal sizes are now greater than 1 meter and will likely see further increases in 2019. While, the cost of metal 3D printing has dropped by about 1/10th of what it was compared to 2016, due to newer simpler 3d printing processes that piggyback of existing metal injection moulding technology. Speed is also going up by a factor of 2-5 times compared to previous years with newer technologies like wire arc additive manufacturing (WAAM) and cold-welding 3d printing systems.
If we consider the number of new patents filed for 3D printing over the last several years, it is also reasonable to expect the development of newer 3D printing systems to meet automaker’s demands.

The second largest challenge facing automakers and 3D printing tends to be a lack of trained staff. 3D printing, like other manufacturing technologies, requires skilled technical staff as well as managers who understand the process well enough to solve their current challenges with 3D printing. A plethora of 3D printing solvable challenges in the automotive industry are often ignored simply because teams are not aware of recent developments in 3D printing.
Although there are several economic and personal challenges, automakers looking for a long term weight reduction strategy for their vehicles should consider adopting 3D printing technology in its current state. This has the benefit of strategically preparing their staff and organizations for the inevitability of a digital manufacturing and design process. Secondly, because 3d printing has not been fully explored in the automotive industry, there are numerous easily achievable product and supply chain enhancements for early adopters.

Sources cited
Guo, N. & Leu, M.C. Front. Mech. Eng. (2013) 8: 215.
Sehmi, M., Christensen, J., Bastien, C. et al. Struct Multidisc Optim (2018).
Zegard, T. & Paulino, G.H. Struct Multidisc Optim (2016) 53: 175.
Cavazzuti, Marco & Splendi, Luca & D’Agostino, L & Torricelli, E & Costi, Dario & Baldini, Andrea. (2012). Structural optimization of automotive chassis: theory, set up, design. .



Japanese Elections, Forest Fires, and Responsibility

The Japanese elections came and went with a sort of political aplomb that rendered them totally unremarkable. Unlike the rest of the world, there seems to be no political perturbations. Talking with my young colleagues and the older general public, they were totally incapable of expressing differences between the candidates. Even it is slightly rude to force the subject in conversation. All of this is unsurprising to people that are even slightly familiar with Japan. But what occurred to me is that the total absence of political strife should be a warning sign to new businesses in Japan and the nation as a whole.

Stability uber alles has a heavy unseen cost that the political elite on Japan have not properly factored. Like a forest, businesses grow tall, old, and hollow. Healthy flesh is replaced by dry fragile husks all while the tree is taller and more majestic than ever. With the names of these old trees, we are very familiar. Peter Thiel recently noted that Japan has stopped copying the west. I don’t think it is for a lack of desire but there seems to be an increasing incompetency on the part of these institutional Japanese businesses to advance. A stable political structure, when that political structure is designed to ensure that these hollow trees remain the tallest in the forest, is totally iatrogenic. The damage caused will no doubt be in portion to the duration and magnitude of this iatrogenesis.

People are often puzzled why good 3D printers aren’t made in Japan. But how could they be?



3D Printing New Business Competition in Tohoku Japan

A few weeks ago we proposed a small batch manufacturing business to one of the struggling areas in Japan. We passed the first stage of the competition and a few days we went in to present to a panel of judges about the merits of the business plan.

The basic concept of the business plan was based on two concepts. 1) What Voodoo Manufacturing  is doing 2) The Japanese concept of giving small gifts. The small manufacturing center would be able to turn out around 5000 small plastic objects in a week. We believe this would be a valuable service to venues in Japan that could then offer these customized and branded gifts to their guests for special events. Think, a wedding hall or a sports stadium as the main clients of this business.

Doing the economic calculus of a project like this, I estimated that, on objects like these, transaction costs, on the margin, are reduced by around 300%. I don’t know if this applies to expensive products but I suspect that if it doesn’t yet, it will at some point in the future.

The other interesting thing I learned is that the sweet spot for this business is somewhere between 500-5000 parts. Oddly, doing a single object is a terrible way to make money. Which tends to indicate that a B2C business based around 3D printing has to have a radically different business model. This may also explain why a lot of B2C 3D printing businesses are performing poorly or at very least under expectations.

This whole project seems to be a baby step on a much larger path towards advanced manufacturing. Advanced manufacturing is going to look radically different than traditional economy of scale manufacturing.

Metal 3D Printing in Japanese Businesses

Metal 3D Printing is becoming a hot topic this year with a handful of new entrants like Markforged, Desktop Metal, Vader Systems, Auroralabs etc. I wanted to examine two of these today from the perspective of business 3D printing in Japan.

Desktop Metal recently made a big announcement about the launch of their first products. They have a studio version and a production version.  The price of studio printer will probably be around 150k USD, I haven’t seen the price of the production version but my guess is at least double that and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is 500k USD or more. You can read the basics on their website. The interesting topics are questions and topics are this:

  • Self Contained Metal 3D printing system
  • Rods vs. Powder
  • Speed on the Production system

3D Printing’s real strength is in distributed and localized manufacturing economics. Contrary to traditional manufacturing which benefits from large centralized fabrication that everyone calls scale.  If we think about the fundamental reasons these things work it is very simple:  raw resources, expensive logistics, capital depreciation, and cheap labor is less than raw resources, cheap logistics, capital depreciation and expensive labor. There are probably a few dozen more significant factors we could put in this but basically, cheap labor trumps cheap logistics and has for the last few hundred years. 3D printing inverts this equation, cheap logistics will beat cheap labor for manufacturing, and we are just at the start of this curve.  So why is an office/personal/studio metal 3D printer interesting? Because it makes it economically viable to localize your small parts production. If small scale production becomes localized, it will signal the general market that globalism is on its way out, investment, research, and entrepreneurship will start pouring into localizing big manufacturing. This process will take decades but it will be the predominate economic theme of the 21st century, contrary to what everyone thinks.

Going back to the first gen (small d, small m) desktop metal 3d printers; success will largely depend on how well they educate people in the applications/usefulness and how reliable the machines will be. If you look at all the successful companies in this space you will notice that all of them spend a significant amount of time on educating their end users on use cases of the machine. Although they are both synergistic; Nvidia needs great video games more than great video games need Nvidia. Reliability will be the benchmark for 3D printers, not finished quality. This is for two reasons:

  1. Part quality varies so widely from design and post processing, it is hard to create a standard.
  2. People expect anything digital to work as well as modern electronics. If a 3D printer is as reliable as a TV, no one will notice. If it is anything less, businesses will consider it immature. A high and unfair benchmark, nevertheless, the real one.

Thomas Modeen and Expanding 3D Printing

Thomas Modeen recently visited Japan on a small tour. I had the chance to hear his insightful talk about 3D Printing and product design.


His product design can be seen in more detail on his site. What Thomas does that is really special is transform his fundamental understanding of 3D printing into real objects. In a way, he is certainly 5 or 10 years ahead of our time.  Even his older designs like the Snakeskin are still fresh.  One interesting point Thomas brought up is how to utilize the waste product from desalination plants, that is, salt, in a way that reminds us of the natural life cycle of buildings and cities. He showed a tower made of salt blocks with a 3D printed scaffold. The idea that it would be slowly eaten away and the blocks could be replaced.

The idea of using a waste product like salt for construction is clever and reminds me of the story of charcoal’s popularization.  But, like the story of charcoal, if we want to see change or actual impact, we have to find a way to make something that is actually useful to other people at a price they can afford. Salt is already being 3D printed into structures and further research on this could help us with being strong salt structures for in situ printing in extreme environments where salt is plentiful.

Mucha, Bach, and Tradition as the Linchpin of Art

It is the good fortune of Tokyo that the Slav Epic arrived recently. Others have done more justice in writing to the beauty of Mucha’s masterpiece, I would only add that to see it in person is a totally different experience than an art book. The physical size of the paintings impart a certain monumental feeling that is appropriate  for the history of an entire peoples.

Although, all is not well at the National Art Center of Tokyo, where the exhibit is being held. Upon entering the Art Center grounds you are greeted by some tress dressed up in polka dots masquerading as Art™. Which is a bit like seeing your chef outside smoking before he cooks your meal at a fine restaurant. Interestingly, Mrs. Kusama’s work covers many of the same subjects as Alfons Mucha. The juxtaposition between the two made me recall an old recording of Glenn Gould speaking about Bach’s work.



Like, Bach, Mucha’s Slav epic was thought, or perhaps still is thought, to be outdated by many. While Mrs. Kusama enjoys significant popularity in her current time for her “straightforward” expressions, Mucha was arrested for being a reactionary. Which begs the question of who is actually more straightforward, after all, people don’t get arrested for being too opaque. Keith Haring is another good example of Japan’s obsession with art and artists that on the surface seem edgy or “straightforward” but essentially just mirrors their own obsequiousness. Also contrast the subject matter, of these two types Bach and Mucha vs. Kusama and Haring, the work of the former is almost totally devoted to the greatness of their god and countrymen and the later is effectively public masturbation, just count how many times “I” is used when describing their art.

Because of this, art that attempts to break the rules and channel modernity and fashionable sentiment chains itself to contemporary sentiment. Which, by useful definition, is not art. This also explains why it doesn’t seem to endure very long. In failing to transcend the everyday concerns, these so-called artists have failed to create anything meaningful.

Mucha’s Slav Epic seems to me to be a celebration of tradition and is therefore able to gift the viewer with a perspective above and beyond their own everyday life, that is what makes it beautiful.