You may not be able to print money with it (at least legally) but there are some significant cost savings to be made by automotive companies in the adoption of 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing.

The automotive industry currently accounts for almost 15% of the total 3D printing market and the potential benefits for the sector could change the face of inbound and aftermarket logistics, according to Erik van Wunnik (pictured), global business development director at logistics provider, DSV Solutions.

The latest report from 3D printing consultancy, Wohlers Associates, shows that the automotive market slice is slightly more than consumer and electronics products (12.8%) but behind aerospace (18.2%) and industrial and business machines (18.8%).

However, the exclusive 3D printing of certain production parts could not only lead to greater adoption of the technology by suppliers or OEMs at assembly plants but also build the aftermarket for replacements, which would automatically be 3D printed parts.

“There are lots of opportunities in the 3D printing market,” said van Wunnik, talking at last week’s Automotive Logistics Europe conference in Bonn, Germany. “The first ones that come to mind are in the service management supply chain (SMSC). The SMSC is very costly because what we have to do is create parts anywhere at any time and in any quantity. It is very flexible and resilient in that respect. It will also force product innovation toward a demand manufacturing model with new objects and materials.”

Combined with data derived from the ‘connected car’, 3D printing has the potential to eliminate the need for replacement parts forecasting and storage. It is now feasible for a vehicle to tell a supplier or dealer that a part is in need of replacement and start the printing of a certified part at a location convenient to the customer, according to van Wunnick.

Parts hoarding is a big problem for dealers with limited capacity to store a wide range of parts over long periods. Equipping a dealer or even a field service delivery van with a printer and a computer with all the 3D parts models available could mean a part was on its way in one press of a button.

Kai Rabe, European logistics manager aftersales at Adam Opel, said 3D technology could eliminate certain areas of logistics altogether and have a significant impact on warehousing in particular. The parts used on vehicles in the future, which may be fewer than today if electrification goes the way it is forecast, may not be stored in warehouses at all, he said, because they could be 3D printed.

At the end of the day, it all depends on the manufacturing strategy of the OEM, said van Wunnik. He speculated that an OEM could want to create a basic car that is delivered to the dealer without certain additions, which the customer then buys online, choosing which parts to be printed and added through an e-commerce channel.

OEMs are certainly using 3D printing in the production process as they look to reduce tooling costs and explore vehicle customisation and van Wunnik pointed to successes at BMW, Opel and Daihatsu through the adoption of the technology for assembly floor tools. He said that, using Fortus 3D printers, BMW produced more than 400 jigs and fixtures that cut costs by 58% and reduced lead time by 92%.

Opel, meanwhile, cut manufacturing tooling production costs by up to 90% using 3D printers supplied by Stratasys. The use of the printers also shortened design development times on new tools that were custom-produced with a day.

Daihatsu also used Stratasys printers for exterior thermoplastic car parts in what was described as a customisation project “that would not have been possible with traditional manufacturing”.

Customisation is a potentially lucrative area in automotive for the use of 3D printing.

“Currently we have low-hanging benefits. There are some improved logistics and cost reductions by substitution, if it is available,” said van Wunnick. “But the next place to look at is in the service parts industry, which could embrace customisation.”

Customers eager to update and redesign the custom look of their vehicle on a more frequent basis rather than buy a new car could be a new market supported by 3D printing technology. “Reselling spare parts could be an interesting way to get to this level,” said van Wunnik.

Videos of the main sessions of the conference can be viewed again here.