Driverless cars, the Internet of Things, and smart devices are all the rage today, but there are still many challenges to overcome before these technologies give way to truly futuristic transportation and autonomous vehicles.
Industry 4.0 stresses a greater emphasis on additive manufacturing in all of these areas, and industry leaders have envisioned broad applications of additive manufacturing in the automotive industry.
3D printing enables electronics applications of additive manufacturing in automotive. Photo by Rob Wingate on Unsplash
Applications of Additive Manufacturing in Automotive Electronics
It might be difficult to separate real use cases and applications of additive manufacturing in automotive products from the hype. Additive manufacturing is already being used by original equipment manufacturers to 3D print mechanical components for vehicles, spare parts for rare vehicles and collectors, and even an entire vehicle. Aside from mechanical components, additively manufactured electronic components are providing new ways to network vehicles, gather automotive data, and produce smart components.
Vehicle Data Collection
According to a 2016 whitepaper for McKinsey, data gathered from modern vehicles on a global scale will be worth $450 to $750 billion by 2030. This data can be used to measure feature use, improve navigation systems, improve safety and driver-assist systems, and better predict required maintenance. Taking advantage of this data requires instant collection in real-time using an on-vehicle sensor network and the use of IoT in automotive applications.
Modern cars already include sensors and sensing technologies to detect and respond to external stimuli for control and monitoring of everything from engine timing to oil pressure. As the focus moves to additive manufacturing, creating sensors for gathering environmental data, detecting obstacles, and a massive amount of other data takes unique sensors with wireless capabilities, customized form factors, and even non-planar geometries. Additive manufacturing systems built for 3D printed electronics can reduce the costs and development time for creating these sensors.
Traditionally, automotive sensors are fabricated separately from the vehicle itself. The sensors are then assembled, shipped to the manufacturer, and installed onto a component after the structure is fabricated. As additive manufacturing systems continue to advance, these sensor networks will be embedded directly into mechanical components and the structure of vehicles. Embedding these sensors can provide higher reliability and longer lifetime compared to external sensors.
Building vehicle networks will be inevitable for automotive manufacturers. In 2016, the U.S. National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration proposed a new rule requiring new vehicles to include a vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) transponder system that allows cars to exchange data over a standard protocol and message format. Although the current administration has stalled the rule, it is clear that automotive companies will continue to push this technology forward.
As autonomous driving systems become the norm, they will also require a communication network to coordinate their speed, position, and heading, as well as data gathered from the network of sensors on each vehicle. Ideally, these networks should be implemented as mesh networks without the need for a base station. Building a mobile network for autonomous vehicles using traditional and unregulated wireless bands requires building an embedded wireless and data processing system for short-range and long-range communication.
With automobiles being complex systems, the placement of an antenna on a vehicle affects its performance. Using an additive manufacturing system allows electronics designers to create wireless systems with any form factor, effectively allowing them to be placed anywhere on a vehicle. Additive manufacturing systems may also be used to embed these wireless systems directly into the structure of a vehicle, similar to embedded sensors.
Additive manufacturing in the automotive industry enables the printing of electronics that link vehicles with a wireless network.
Power Electronics for Electric Vehicles
Power management and distribution systems, charging systems, and traction inverters for electric vehicles are just a few examples of critical power electronics systems that can benefit from additive manufacturing. These are large, heavy systems that contain a diverse array of electronics. The design of power electronics is typically constrained by available manufacturing processes. While designing for manufacturing and assembly optimizes costs incurred during a traditional manufacturing process, it prevents real optimization of these components.
One benefit of using additive manufacturing for these components is the ability to optimize the design for functionality and performance, rather than manufacturability. The adaptability of additive manufacturing processes allows designers to consolidate or integrate complex components into simpler and lighter designs and print them as a single unit. This reduces material waste, decreases manufacturing time, and reduces the overall weight of the component. All of these are significant benefits for electric vehicles, helping reduce costs for consumers and improving fuel efficiency.
Looking to the Future
Embedding networking, sensing, and smart device capabilities directly into the structure of a vehicle reduces the number of fabrication and manufacturing steps. This can be true not just for a multilayer PCB, but also for the overall component. Additive manufacturing also cuts the time required for prototyping and testing a new automotive component, speeding up the development cycle and decreasing time to market.
Many of the world’s best-known automotive companies are already using additive manufacturing to produce mechanical components for their vehicles, and a greater emphasis on unique, more complex, and lighter electronic components is sure to follow. With the rise of autonomous and networked vehicles and a greater proliferation of 3D printing systems, electronics designers can only expect to see more applications of additive manufacturing in the automotive industry.
No matter your industry, prototyping and production of electronics are more efficient and cost-effective when you have access to a precision in-house additive manufacturing system. The award-winning DragonFly Pro precision additive manufacturing system is built specifically for rapid prototyping and production of planar and non-planar electronics. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about DragonFly Pro.