Vroom! How 3D printing is revving up to save the auto industry big bucks

We open the hood of the auto industry and look inside with John Kawola, president of 3D printer maker Ultimaker.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

First look at the dual-extruder Ultimaker 3

If you spend any time watching 3D printing videos on YouTube, you'd think the only use of the technology would be for printing Yoda heads and small toys. But the reality is what makes 3D printing so exciting is it has bottom-line benefits that can result in real time and money savings.

Take the auto industry, for example. In just this past year, we've talked about how Ford, Volkswagen, and Team Penske have started incorporating 3D printing into their processes.

Ultimaker is one of the 3D printer manufacturers I've worked with throughout the DIY-IT 3D Printing Discovery Series here on ZDNet. I've been particularly fascinated because its product offers multiple filament extruding, which allows you to combine materials in a single print run.

Ultimaker set out to discover just how much, in real dollars, 3D printing might be able to save in the automobile business. In its analysis, it incorporated public data sets from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and data on the auto industry collected by the fine folks at Statista.

To understand how 3D printing might be able to save money, you need to get a feel for what and where money might be saved. For example, if we can make mechanical and industrial engineers, and assemblers and fabricators more effective, we can save quite a lot of money.

How much? Ultimaker determined that mechanical and industrial engineers cost the auto industry $18,706 per minute. Fabricators and assemblers of miscellaneous parts cost the auto industry $50,667 per minute.


This per-minute metric is interesting, because there are about half a million minutes in a year. If you can save just a few of those minutes across the industry, you're starting to see benefits in the millions of dollars.

I had the opportunity to dive deeper on this topic with John Kawola, president of Ultimaker North America. Here's what he told me:

The overall cost of automotive manufacturing in the United States is $460,706 per minute, or $1,110,663,840 per week. This means that even the slightest improvements in efficiency can have a major impact on a company's bottom line.

Many auto manufacturers are using next-gen technology like 3D printing to drive efficiency. Volkswagen Autoeuropa is a great example. The company turned to desktop 3D printing to create custom tools and jigs that are used daily on the assembly line, replacing an old process that required outsourcing and long lead times.

Not only did 3D printing introduce a more cost-effective way to produce the tools, it gave time back to the company. The seemingly minor change saved $160,000 in just one plant in 2016, and it's projected to save $200,000 this year.

It's important to think of 3D printing in auto manufacturing not just as an avenue for cost savings, but as an avenue for time gained back. With automotive manufacturers bringing in $3,221,000 per minute in revenue, every second of time saved equals more potential impact on the bottom line.

It will be interesting to see how these numbers change over the next few years as more companies adopt 3D printing and the technology continues to advance. I expect that we'll see the cost of manufacturing per minute decrease and the revenue per minute increase. A majority of the leading auto brands have been vocal about leveraging 3D printing.

An official with the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently predicted that 3D printing has potential to reduce the cost of developing an entirely new vehicle from $600 million today to just $60 million.

The nature of auto manufacturing and design makes the industry ripe for disruption. Hundreds of engineers might design one wiper blade, for example. In the past, they might all have access to an industrial 3D printer in a centralized location, but advancements in desktop 3D printing allow them now to print designs directly at their desks.

These workers are printing more often and collaborating more effectively. And with the cost of mechanical and industrial engineers being $18,706 per minute, again, the potential savings from these gained efficiencies is huge.

See what I mean? This is so way beyond Yoda heads; it's literally a force multiplier. 3D printing isn't just a fascinating technology. It's gone way beyond the idea of a technology in search of a solution. It's something with real-world, immediate, bottom-line benefits that are being put into place right now.

Stay tuned. We've got a lot more 3D printing coverage (and some more looks into the Ultimaker 3 itself) coming up here on ZDNet.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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