There has been tremendous development in manufacturing methods, and newer technologies like 3D printing and additive manufacturing have begun growing at a faster pace than expected. This form of manufacturing uses only the exact amount of raw materials required to make a component or product, to the exact specifications provided in the design. Imaginarium is claimed to be India’s largest 3D printing, rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing centre. In an interaction with Atit Kothari, Business Development - Leadership Team, Imaginarium (India) Pvt Ltd, we find out about the role of additive manufacturing in the automotive industry, and its advantages for short-run production cycles.
SHORT-RUN PRODUCTION EFFICIENCIES
Imaginarium began as a 3D printing company that bought 3D printers and provided such manufacturing services to various industries. However, the company wanted to grow beyond just this role, since most industries, including automotive, did not care if the part was 3D printed or not, noted Kothari. Imaginarium focuses on how to get short-run production to the customer faster, at a cheaper price and in quantities comparable to parts made with conventional methods. An example would be in making a new dashboard for a car, explained Kothari. Traditionally, the process would begin with tooling for the mould, which could take from weeks to even months, depending on the type of component being made. Now what Imaginarium does through 3D printing or CNC milling is produce the entire component in a matter of days, he said. Additionally, the company also enables the manufacture of prototypes in certain materials, which can be put to in-engine testing for a couple of hours. Kothari said that the advantage of using Imaginarium is for short-run production where a customer wants the first five pieces to run tests or check the design. It is also possible to manufacture an entire component to see how the final product would look in flesh, he added.
The process of manufacturing components and products through 3D printing is most suitable for short-run production, which has a threshold of about 50 units of the component, noted Kothari. However, tooling along with injection moulding will be a cheaper proposition once the number of units increases to mass production scales. Therefore, this form of manufacturing is suitable for making the first batch of components, either for design iteration or faster turnaround. Imaginarium uses various technologies in the manufacture of parts, components and tools combined with 3D printing, including CNC machining, PU vacuum casting and injection moulding. The combination of each technology depends on the number of parts to be manufactured using the additive manufacturing process. For example, CNC machining is used in cases where the number of parts required does not exceed five units. Vacuum casting process is used to make 5-25 pieces from the master piece that is 3D printed.
Additionally, Imaginarium also carries out 3D printing using selective laser sintering (SLS) and stereolithography (SLA) machines. Kothari said that the SLS process uses Nylon PA 12 powder as its raw material, and sinters it to form a product that comes with a rough finish. Products made through the SLS methodology can also be used for functional testing, he noted. In the case of SLA, the raw material is a photo-curable resin in liquid form that is cured with a certain wavelength of UV light from a laser. Kothari explained that the product manufactured through this process comes with a fine and smooth finish, but remains very brittle. The type of processing and manufacturing combination to be used with additive manufacturing is dictated by what the customer requires the prototype component for.
About half of the company’s business comes from the automotive sector, with over 90 % of this work being carried out for rapid prototyping, said Kothari. He said the reason for automotive being such a big contributor to the business is the fact that the size of the components produced for this industry are large when compared to other industries. Imaginarium wants to be the one-stop-shop solution for a manufacturer from the time when the design of a component is ready, up until the start of mass manufacturing. The company focuses on making short-run manufacturing as fast and inexpensive as possible. Kothari also said that now there are companies in Europe that are turning towards 3D printing process to produce customised car parts.
THE ROAD AHEAD
3D printing or additive manufacturing is a fairly new technology that has come into the market, noted Kothari. He said that if these manufacturing technologies are used in the same way as injection moulding or CNC machining, then the traditional methods are always going to be cheaper. One method of bringing 3D printing into mass-scale production would be if there is growth in the level of customisation of components in an automobile, which seems to be some time away, Kothari observed. The other way would be if designers start designing complex components for the exclusive purpose of additive manufacturing, since it has the advantage of being able to produce any design that can be thought of. Additionally, this complexity in manufacturing comes without a premium, in the sense that the same machine can produce a highly-complex part followed by something more mundane. This comes as an added advantage to the automotive industry, especially where a component’s design makes the machining process challenging.
Kothari said that various industries are at different stages of adopting 3D printing into their process. So, while the jewellery industry is currently using this form of manufacturing more than other industries, the automotive industry is also following closely. He concluded by saying that Imaginarium, especially in the automotive sector, is more than just a 3D printing supplier, and also brings additional processes that help make short-run manufacturing easier.
TEXT: Naveen Arul