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New 3D Printing Tech Could Be A Game Changer For Auto Design And Manufacturing
Disruption comes when we least expect it. Someone with a “just crazy enough” idea follows it to fruition and suddenly the world changes. And usually this evolves around an unmet need of the customer, industry or both.
Interestingly, such a disruption appears to have arrived at minimally automotive's doorstep: the 3D printing of circuit boards. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect: right as incumbent auto manufacturers are struggling with getting innovative, electric vehicles to market quickly while supply chain issues abound and some combination of inflation or recession looms like a thunderstorm with distant rumbles. And although soothsaying articles about 3D printing disruptions probably smack of Chicken-Little-cries by now, this crazy enough tech approaches age-old design and manufacturing with disruptions for speed to market, upgrades to design and controls for supplies.
Speed to Market
The concept of “speed to market” has always been the draw of 3D printing: create prototypes quickly, learn customer preferences using Lean User Experience or other such methodologies, and iterate to an improved solution. But such agility has traditionally been available for either the housings, bracketry or off-vehicle technology (e.g., servers running software). Changing circuit boards still required 8-10 weeks. And so the cliché of “We’ll fix it in software” became the norm: keep the half-baked architecture and somehow jerry-rig solutions using more malleable parts of the system. Period.
However, 3D printing of a new circuit board now can be accomplished within thirty (30) hours, thereby allowing the team to test system lag and performance quicker and iterate on the architecture. “In addition to changing the cost structure for full-scale manufacturing, additive systems give designers greater freedom to innovate and iterate,” states Zivi Nedivi, President of Nano Dimension, an Additive Manufactured Electronics (AME) printing company. “This helps accelerate design and development cycles for Hi-Performance Electronic Devices or Hi-PEDs. What typically might have been a two-month period to generate a finished circuit board, AME can produce in less than two days, thus helping significantly reduce overall cycle time. When innovation depends on several rounds of iterative cycles, these savings add up to be very significant.”
Upgrades To Design
Maybe the more fascinating part of this tech for automotive: the packaging engineer is no longer constrained to a flat, rectangular board which struggles to fit in certain locations (e.g., A-pillar, steering column), and the structural engineer is no longer as worried about vibrational and tensile forces that plagued traditional designs. You want a box? Or a honeycomb? Or any shape that works for the reimagined vehicle? All are welcomed and that flexibility permits unique integrations, lower weights, better durability and a host of value propositions. “AME-produced circuit boards can be configured to in a myriad of shapes and sizes,” asserts Nedivi. “This is ideal for quickly evolving design of cars, particularly with conformal shapes, e.g., round aspects.”
Another silent-yet-intriguing aspect of the improved design centers on the original customer need of the electric-vehicle-shift: sustainability. Consumers and governments around the world are nervous about automotive’s influence on climate change and desperately want considerations for the environment. Interestingly, 3D printing the circuit boards also helps with this goal. “Traditional electronics’ manufacturing has a very unfortunate and often unknown dark side: sustainability,” states Nedivi. “Many chemicals and energy are used. As the automobile industry looks to advance sustainability through the vehicles themselves, it should not be overlooked how the vehicles — especially the electronics — are made. Independent studies have shown AME is better in terms of chemicals and energy used, and many other variables, for example water and waste.”
Controls For Supplies
In should be no shock to readers that the world is arguably experiencing the greatest supply chain crisis of our lifetime. Per Willy Shih’s Harvard Business Review article entitled, Global Supply Chains in a Post-Pandemic World, “The supply shock that started in China in February [of 2020] and the demand shock that followed as the global economy shut down exposed vulnerabilities in the production strategies and supply chains of firms just about everywhere … [And] As a consequence of all of this, manufacturers worldwide are going to be under greater political and competitive pressures to increase their domestic production, grow employment in their home countries, reduce or even eliminate their dependence on sources that are perceived as risky, and rethink their use of lean manufacturing strategies that involve minimizing the amount of inventory held in their global supply chains.” Manufacturing shutdown in Wuhan? Print some parts. Special build needed for a low-runner in service? Print some parts. Back-up on the shipping docks? Print some parts. The flexibility for reducing these operational risks is immeasurable.
Such in-house printing additionally helps with controls on Intellectual Property (IP). Revealing to multiple suppliers the design of needed bolts or bracketry doesn’t expose game-changing innovation, but software and electronics are now the true differentiators and require extra precautions regarding their exposure. “IP control is another huge advantage of AME,” says Nedivi. “You can fabricate completely in-house to maintain control of cutting-edge designs. A [manufacturer] can create freely, knowing the IP and ideas are locked tight.”
Paired with such step-function change(s) shall assuredly be naysayers; linked throughout time and space with a reoccurring destiny akin to superhero and villain. He (and, yes, I’m calling out my own gender) shall be an engineer in his later years who cannot imagine flying taxis, online dating and cleaning robots. Changes to him are revolutions trumping his traditions and he’ll combat them with blogging criticisms such as “not fast enough for true manufacturing” or “we have yet to see 3D printing truly take off.” And yet the present constantly evolves towards the future regardless of his denials because “the need” drives the market forward.
Welcome to the future.
This article was originally published by Steve Tengler (firstname.lastname@example.org) on Forbes.com on August 24, 2022
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