Bentley announces a £3 million investment to enhance its 3D-printed components production. An important initiative for Bentley’s communication and marketing strategy as well as an innovation for the future sustainability and efficiency of the industry.
Thanks to this improvement the automaker has manufactured over 15,000 components in 2021. And plans are in place to further develop this technology in order to create proper vehicle components and offer more personalisation to customers.
Which could be 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing (AM) real benefits for the automotive industry in the long run? And how does it play into Bentley’s business and marketing Strategy?
First, let’s have an overview of the current state of this sector
The AM industry has grown consistently over the past years. Data from Wohler Associates report a constant growth slowed only by the impact of the pandemic. The effect was likely partially felt in 2021 as well. Nonetheless, since 2015, the year-over-year expansion of this market has been around 20% up until 2019.
In automotive 3D Printing brings several advantages, especially in the context of electrification. From small components to larger ones and more extensive use in general, AM allows for more accuracy and repeatability in manufacturing, as well as weight-saving thanks to the numerous new alloys obtained from special materials such as titanium or recycled plastics.
In turn, this creates designs that are more easily serialised and customised when needed, processes optimisation, and cost-efficiency. Which is also why a consistent number of companies applied AM in motorsport first.
Sustainable AM consultant and innovator EOS is a great example of such solutions applied to the automotive industry. Their brake pedal case study demonstrates the benefits of this technique. Starting from an aluminium component, the company wanted to develop the same piece while making it lighter and stiffer. The required result was achieved through the use of titanium and a hollow design that is often developed by really advanced algorithms or even AI.
The final result was a piece that weighed 178 g instead of a 190 (with the potential to go down to 80 g), and a reduction of displacement on stress from 1.8 mm to 0.6.
Last but not least, AM can also be much more sustainable thanks to two main factors. One is recycling. More and more start-ups today are able to recycle the powder used for the production process, or waste materials to manufacture new pieces. And secondly, efficient, lightweight structures like the one shown before for the car pedal, simply use fewer materials making 3D Printing already more efficient, not even considering the potential for significantly lower waste.
The use cases range is already vast. From component prototyping for pneumatic and hydraulic systems, gearboxes, and more, to emission filters, fuel caps, headlights, and taillights frames, or structures, body kits, grills, wheels, tubes, turbines, and more.
As cars become more standardised at least for high-volume production, 3D Printing will become increasingly important for automakers.
When it comes to luxury automakers instead, naturally the most important advantages of AM use will be weight reduction, durability, and potential for experimentation. The best example seen since the pandemic hit (at the last official Geneva Autoshow in 2019) is arguably the use of different techniques for the Bugatti La Voiture Noire concept developed by designer Etienne Salomé. The wheels were developed through AI to achieve the lightest and strongest inner structure possible and then printed. The rear lightbar too was realised through AM.
But now, back to Bentley's latest investment
Upon announcing this initiative, the Crewe manufacturer stressed the attention on its sustainability. From a marketing strategy perspective, in fact, AM plays well into the Beyond100 plan that Bentley put in place a few years ago. A roadmap to becoming the most sustainable luxury automotive brand in the world, introduced a while back while talking about Bentley’s results and evolving strategy.
Bentley has wisely tackled the sustainability issue from different directions, improving on every aspect of the business. Waste reduction, energy efficiency, recycling, materials research and sustainability, fleet emission reduction, electrification, logistics, and so on. All these measures are putting the brand firmly at the front of the sustainable automotive revolution.
The large investment so far has been employed to realise tools to improve the manufacturing processes, create prototypes, racing car components, and parts refinement for the Bentley Blower Continuation project. All of these use a range of over 25 different materials. More importantly, the internalisation of this production allows also the company to produce more parts in-house without the need to outsource as much, giving back more control on manufacturing.
Finally, Bentley too, as did other OEMs like Ferrari and Lamborghini since 2020 used these capabilities to produce equipment that could help hospitals and their staff during the Covid-19 crisis.
The AM optimisation enabled a 50% cost-saving on all the produced components as well as a significant lead times reduction.
Every luxury automaker has to different extents employed 3D Printing in its production, as shown in the table below:
There are a few interesting takeaways to observe from the table. One is that Koenigsegg's early adoption shows the company’s innovative potential. But also the concept reiterated by its founder Christian von Koenigsegg when talking about the freedom that smaller companies enjoy compared to larger ones when it comes to innovating and trying riskier solutions:
“For example, with the Regera, I don’t see any of the other established brands, daring to remove shifting of gears. It’s such a fundamental thing to take away from a sports car, that I think it’s only Koenigsegg that could make that decision. And I’m very confident about the decision […] We take more freedoms like that”
Another evident factor is the importance of racing activities for sports cars manufacturers. Ferrari, McLaren, and Porsche all implemented 3D Printing in their racing divisions first, due to the performance capabilities of such components, both in terms of weight reduction, and durability. It must be noted that others like Lamborghini have later implemented the use of similar parts for their racing cars as well.
Finally, while more OEMs are bringing these skills in-house, the first ones that did it right from the start seem to be those that are part of large automotive groups. One of the drawbacks of this technology is, in fact, its initial capital intensity, and the cost of materials. While both machines and materials will eventually become cheaper, as with every new technology in its infancy the costs are initially high. So, the backing of a large automotive group is once again key to bringing in innovation.
3D Printing is already quite widespread in high-volume automotive manufacturing. Technological development, more stringent environmental regulations and cars standardisation will arguably make it the best option for many components’ manufacturing going forward.
For luxury and performance automotive though the use of AM will have different implications, as it has been so far. The factors mentioned above (except for standardisation of course) will likely serve the sector to improve the cars’ sustainability and most of all to bring more innovation and personalisation. Prototypes and bespoke pieces’ development will become faster, cheaper, and more efficient, to the point in which even for the top segment, this technology will likely become the new standard.
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