3D Printing Materials for Automotive Applications | Part 2

3D Printing Materials for Automotive Applications | Part 2

Automotive manufacturers’ continuous quest for lighter, stronger, and more efficient vehicles has driven many to adopt 3D printing as a viable manufacturing solution. With innovation and cost being the driving force behind progress, many Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are looking to integrate 3D printing polymer materials into their product development lifecycle. This may come as a surprise to many because it does not satisfy the metal-equals strong paradigm that has been adopted for decades. However, polymer 3D printing offers a sweet spot for the automotive industry because it offers:  

  • Lightweight, yet durable options resulting in improved fuel efficiency and vehicle performance. 
  • A diverse range of material capabilities and properties to fit your specific application needs. 
  • A more cost-effective and accessible approach to faster product development times. 

In this article, we’ll explore five key polymer 3D printing materials and their transformative impact on automotive manufacturing. 

The Automotive Adoption Timeline:

hp automotive adoption timeline

Source: HP

Choosing the right material for each stage of the product adoption timeline is crucial to being able to produce parts that are optimized for your automotive applications. During the initial stages of product development, prototyping plays a vital role in validating design concepts, identifying potential issues, and refining engineering specifications. Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is well-suited for functional prototyping because of its affordability when testing designs for production. With ABS, engineers can thoroughly assess the structural integrity and ergonomics of a part without incurring substantial material costs. Furthermore, the material’s thermal stability and ductility allow automotive manufacturers to test automotive parts with high-stress loads and complex geometries. 

The small-volume production (bridge production) stage is essential to bridging the gap between prototyping and full-scale production. This is especially a sweet spot for contract manufacturers like Endeavor 3D because of their ability to cater to the demand volumes of automotive manufacturers, providing a repeatable and agile bridge to the supply gap.  

Once you are ready for full production of your automotive parts it is important to identify materials that offer scalability and consistency to meet the demands of mass manufacturing. However, the process of choosing the right material for end-use parts is different than other stages of the product development lifecycle. Due to the high volume of parts being produced, the total part quantity, material cost per part, and printer build capacity of the technology that is being used should all be considered.  

As a vehicle enters the aftermarket phase, the need for replacement parts and repairs becomes increasingly important. Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) emerges as a key material, offering custom-fit sealing systems and flexible hoses and tubing. These replacement parts often require a material that can withstand repeated use and mechanical stress. With a Shore A Hardness rating of 88, TPU exhibits the ideal balance of stiffness and elasticity for components that experience wear and tear over time. 

In addition to end-use parts, 3D printing polymers are used to produce jigs, fixtures, and tooling to sustain the manufacturing process. During this phase, high-performance thermoplastics are replacing traditional manufacturing materials. This reduces the time for tooling validation and accelerates the process of identifying where changes need to be made long before end-use parts are created. As a result, factory floor operations are optimized by reducing downtime.  

PA12 (Nylon):

Polyamide 12, commonly known as Nylon PA12, is a versatile thermoplastic polymer with excellent durability, good thermal and chemical resistance, and excellent surface finish. Its high tensile strength (48 MPa) and impact resistance make it ideal for automotive applications requiring robust components. For this reason, PA12 is ideal for small-volume production and full-production runs of functional parts. As one of the most widely adopted 3D printing materials in the industry, PA12 is suitable for applications ranging from engine components to interior fixtures. Its ability to withstand chemicals and high heat deflection temperatures (347 F @ 0.45 MPa) makes it ideal for under-the-hood applications.

Endeavor 3D PA12 Manifold

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene):

ABS is a widely used thermoplastic known for its balance of strength and flexibility and excellent mechanical properties. The material is relatively inexpensive, making it well-suited for prototyping and low to medium-volume production. During these stages of the product development lifecycle, multiple iterations need to be created and tested. ABS’s affordability allows automotive manufacturers to explore various design concepts without breaking budgets.  

ABS is also commonly used for end-use interior car components. It offers excellent surface finish and dimensional stability, making it ideal for producing aesthetically pleasing parts with intricate details. However, due to its sensitivity to temperature changes, ABS can experience issues when being used for under-the-hood applications. Compared to PA12, ABS has a Heat Deflection Temperature of between 180 – 215 F at .45 MPa. Proper printer calibration and the use of a heated bed can help mitigate the issue of warping during the 3D printing process. Due to its sensitivity to heat during the 3D printing process, ABS is a popular material among Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printing technology. The presence of a heated bed allows for easily molded shapes at the proper temperature.  

Motorcycle dashboard made of Z-ABS. Source: Zortrax 

Acrylonitrile Styrene Acrylate (ASA):

ASA is a weather-resistant thermoplastic known for its exceptional UV stability and chemical resistance. As a result, automotive manufacturers utilize ASA for exterior components such as grilles, spoilers, and mirror housings. The material’s ability to maintain colorfastness and mechanical properties over time ensures long-lasting performance and visual appeal. However, while the material does have superior mechanical properties and surface finish compared to ABS, the cost of the filament reflects its improvement. For instance, a 1kg spool of ASA filament costs ranges between $15 and $35, whereas ABS materials of the same weight range between $30 and $50, depending on the brand and quality.  

ASA thrives in the small-volume production phase, enabling rapid fabrication of custom parts. The material often caters to niche markets and unique customer needs, given its ability to produce parts with specific mechanical and aesthetic requirements. The material is compatible with Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), one of the most common 3D printing technologies.  

car-rearview-mirrors-manufactured-with-asa-in-3d-form

Car rearview mirror printed with ASA 

Polypropylene (PP):

Polypropylene (PP) is a lightweight thermoplastic renowned for its excellent chemical resistance, low moisture absorption, and fatigue resistance. In automotive manufacturing, PP is widely used for interior components, door panels, and storage compartments. Its inherent flexibility and toughness make it suitable for applications requiring impact resistance and durability. PP offers significant advantages during the full production phase in terms of cost-effectiveness and scalability. With the ability to produce complex geometries, the material enables efficient mass production while maintaining consistent quality standards.  

So why haven’t we seen a more widespread adoption of polypropylene? Compared to PLA, a common alternative because of its ease in processablity, PP “weighs about 30% less per volume” for end-products while having “about 40% more material per pound of material.” Moreover, it is recyclable and resists deformation when exposed to high temperatures. However, the material’s tendency to warp during the 3D printing cooling process has given it the name “poly-warp-ylene” says Jason Vagnozzi, Commercial Director of Additive Manufacturing & Digital Ventures at Braskem. This has created a headache for many automotive manufacturers because of the inconsistencies associated with 3D printed end-use parts using polypropylene. 

Car door defroster vent printed with BASF PP 

Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU):

Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) is a specialized thermoplastic elastomer known for its flexibility, resilience, and abrasion resistance. In the automotive industry, TPU is utilized for sealing systems, gaskets, and vibration-dampening components. Its softtouch feel and excellent elastic recovery properties make it ideal for applications requiring sealing and cushioning. During the spares, repairs, and full production phases, TPU enables on-demand production of replacement parts, ensuring timely maintenance and serviceability. The material’s high elongation at break and tear resistance ensures durability in demanding automotive environments.

Car headrest with BASF TPU

Conclusion

From functional prototypes to full production, automotive manufacturers are leveraging 3D printing polymer materials to accelerate design cycles, reduce cost, and enhance product performance. Each material offers unique advantages that cater to various stages of the product development lifecycle. By assessing the properties and capabilities of each material, you will be able to choose the right material for your specific automotive application needs.  

The 3D printing industry is constantly evolving, with new materials continually emerging to address industry-specific applications. To navigate this dynamic landscape, automotive manufacturers are looking to Endeavor 3D as a trusted partner. Contact us today to explore how you can harness the full potential of 3D printing for your next project. 

 

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