Jeff Schipper

A recent advert for Nissan boasts that, these days, “the most exciting tech you own is in your driveway”. That is probably true. Gone are the days when FM radio or CD players got car buyers excited. Today they want smart vehicles. They want voice-activated navigation. They want live-streamed media, heads-up displays, rear cameras, advanced safety features like blind-spot warnings – more options than ever. It seems the automotive industry has gone from Henry Ford’s “any colour you want, as long as it’s black” to “whatever you want, as quickly as possible”.

These new demands have significant implications for automotive manufacturers and their partners. Suppliers must make sure that a diverse collection of components are in the right place at the right time. Designers face shorter development cycles than ever before. Engineers must grapple with new materials and find innovative and agile methods of manufacturing. Executives must decide how to chart their companies’ course through new territory.

This is indeed an era of immense technological innovation and rapid change, encompassing trends such as electrification; autonomous driving; lightweighting; demand volatility; hyper-customisation and the repositioning of vehicle-makers as tech companies.

Just as vehicles are changing under these conditions, so too must their makers. One of the best ways for automotive companies to mitigate risk when launching new products is to partner with suppliers which have expertise in the entire spectrum of digital manufacturing processes, including CNC machining, injection molding, sheet metal fabrication and especially industrial-grade 3D printing.

The digitisation of manufacturing has opened up an abundance of opportunity across all of these processes, even the ‘traditional’ ones, including designing better parts before producing them, reducing risk and slashing the time it takes to bring a product to market.

Coping with customisation
Digital manufacturing is also the bedrock underlying mass customisation, a trend that will dramatically impact the way we buy consumer goods in the future, vehicles among them. In fact, the technology is already being used to manufacture spare and aftermarket vehicle parts.

At Protolabs, a digital manufacturing specialist, we are seeing a huge uptick in the prototyping of brackets, headlight housings, bezels and frames for electronics – many of them destined for self-driving cars – as well as a variety of on-demand service components for older vehicles. This on-demand service eliminates the time and expense associated with tooling up a part that may have left the production line several decades ago.

Additionally, we see that striving for extra fuel efficiency through lightweighting continues to be a focus for automotive manufacturers. While many of the big gains have already been realised, if a customer can still shave a few ounces off a product, they are understandably delighted.

That said, it is much easier than it once was to accomplish these incremental improvements because there are now a variety of new, high-performance polymers available as well as more capable software tools, and digital suppliers which are able to leverage a broad range of manufacturing disciplines. This makes it quite time- and cost-effective to make and test multiple iterations of a product design.

Using intelligent design tools
However and wherever vehicles are manufactured, and regardless of the methods used to design them, it is important to gather feedback from the people who drive them every day. This is where design tools such as the digital twin, automated quoting and design analysis systems that allow for rapid prototyping can help bring the next generation of innovation to this industry.

Digital manufacturers are playing a massive role in driving this shift. The digital twin, for instance, can be thought of as a digital copy of a real-world object – a vehicle, in this case – which provides vehicle designers with valuable information about their products’ performance. The rise of automated quoting and design analysis tools are further examples of the efficiency which can be achieved.

These types of intelligent software systems are increasingly important to manufacturers of all types, including automotive. Vehicle-makers are concerned about reducing their upfront engineering costs, they want the ability to test out design changes quickly and they want to get to market with the lowest cost of entry possible. This is where digital and highly automated manufacturing will continue to shine.

Jeff Schipper is director of operations at Protolabs