In October of 2017, global engineering group GKN announced that it would be consolidating all of its additive manufacturing activities into one sub-brand of GKN Powder Metallurgy, called GKN Additive. The brand, which operates from global centers of excellence in four countries, combines the company’s history of manufacturing parts for aerospace and automotive engineering with advanced 3D printing technology.
Speaking of automotive engineering, GKN Additive believes that metal additive manufacturing (AM) is very valuable in the product development of motorcycles and other off-highway vehicles (OHV) – like dirt bikes, four-wheelers, and snowmobiles – especially when compared to more traditional forms of manufacturing.
“We all know that AM technology is well suited to prototyping, but we believe that the motorcycle industry in particular is rife with opportunity,” Josh Norman, Engineering Manager (GPC), Additive Manufacturing N.A., GKN Sinter Metals, tells 3DPrint.com.
“Today’s motorcycle industry is producing a wide variety of vehicle options as they look to target new demographics and appeal to broader audiences. This puts a heavy emphasis on new product development which requires a high volume of prototypes. Motorcycles contain a large quantity of cast and forged components – two groups which are excellent candidates for prototyping using laser powder bed fusion (our most popular metal AM process). The complex geometries typical of cast and forged products can be difficult to machine from billet and any off-tool prototypes are very expensive and have long lead times. Metal AM on the other hand enables us to skip tool builds and produce parts which require machining only on their critical surfaces. For certain product groups, this in turn results in cost savings and shorter lead times. At GKN, we specialize not only in building AM prototypes, but also in working directly with our customers to help them identify which product groups stand to gain the most from metal AM technology.”
In a recent post on GKN Sinter Metals’ Innovation Blog, Norman discussed the multiple ways in which metal 3D printing can be used to increase and improve motorcycle product development.
Three important factors make additive manufacturing a good fit for the motorcycle industry. Volume is one, as the lower volumes common in the industry can place the market “within reach of the higher productivity AM machines.”
OEMs are pressured to get motorcycles to market faster than ever before, and to offer lots of models and unique customization as well, so flexibility is another factor. Additionally, motorcycles and other OHVs are smaller than typical automobiles, which means their parts and components are smaller – underscoring more benefits for metal 3D printing processes.
When it comes to choosing the right process, laser powder bed printing is the most commonly used technique in the industry. But, binder jetting processes can, according to Norman, “drastically raise the parts per year ‘tipping point’ wherein AM becomes feasible for serial production.”
“Metal AM is already changing the way motorcycles are developed by shortening the prototyping process,” Norman wrote. “There is already much talk in the industry regarding the use of AM for prototypes. Prototypes need quick turnaround times. Developing a new product is an iterative process; the faster you can iterate, the faster your product can go to market.”
When you’re prototyping objects with complex geometries for low-volume applications, like motorcycle parts, typically you have to build expensive tooling or machine the components, which gets complicated fast. In addition, it can take months for tooling to be completed in the automotive world, which can cause issues if your design changes before you even receive the tools.
Using metal 3D printing to fabricate these products, such as motorcycle parts that are normally cast, forged, or stamped, will negate costly and time-consuming tooling until the final design iteration has been tested. This can, as Norman writes, “save you months and thousands of dollars.”
But 3D printing can improve more than just motorcycle prototypes. It’s also a great tool for customization, if product developers and design engineers do their homework and learn about the technology’s limitations and capabilities. More lightweight motorcycle parts can be achieved by using topology optimization tools to design structures with less material, visible components such as shift levers and linkages can be customized to individual riders, and designers can build internal cooling channels that conform to the shape of the structures.
“Motorcycle manufacturers are exploring the value that AM brings to the table,” Norman said. “You need to be fast, ambitious, and have determination to succeed in the motorcycle industry. Taking advantage of new technology is one way to keep up with the pace of motorcycle and OHV production.”
One must also consider the future of motorcycle manufacturing when pondering the adoption of 3D printing. In addition to lowering the weight of parts, saving on product development time, and reducing operating costs, the technology is also a boon to personal customization and inventory, both of which we’ve seen examples of in the automobile market.
“Motorcycles have stood as a symbol of freedom,” Norman wrote. “It seems fitting that the process which frees engineers to think outside the box should now find its place in this industry. 3D printing will continue to affect the way we think about design, and the benefits listed in this article will carry over into jet skis, ATVs and other off highway vehicles.”
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