Anyone remotely familiar with 3D printing technology knows its biggest appeal: the ability to design and prototype multiple iterations of a part quickly and at low cost. Tesla, a company known for its innovative approach to production problems, appears to be aware of these advantages. Recently, we reported about its new ‘gigacasting’ process, which involves casting large, complex car parts as a single piece, instead of stamping and assembling it in several complex and costly steps. Sources behind the news revealed the difficulties of implementing this new process. It appears that 3D printers are at the heart of the solution.
Manufacturers avoid casting large components because the required sand moulds are expensive to create. They can cost up to four million dollars per mold, with each modification adding an additional $100,000. According to the sources, Tesla has been exploring a 3D printing technique called binder jetting to develop these molds. Binder jet printers are able to produce a complete 3D form by applying a liquid binder layer-by-layer according to a digital model. This is similar to selective laser sintering (SLS), except that a binder agent is used instead of melting to turn the powder into a solid shape.
Each print is completed in a matter of hours. Prototypes can then be reworked to perfection as often as necessary. This reduces the time required for development from up to one year to as little as two or three. Tesla plans to leverage another important strength of 3D printing, the possibility of greater complexity in the model, since large structural parts often feature hollow voids to reduce weight and improve crash-performance.
Notably, BMW and Cadillac have already incorporated binder jetting into their development pipeline, using printers from Voxeljet. Similar machines are offered by Desktop Metal’s ExOne. While significant challenges remain in bringing gigacasting to the factory, with Tesla still working out the details, it’s safe to say that 3D printing continues to facilitate innovation across industries in new and unexpected ways.
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