Killer 3D Printing Applications: Specialty Vehicles, Part Two

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In the last post in this series, I looked at the overall market for specialty vehicles, including the types of automobiles that comprise it, some of the manufacturers, and the overall value. In this post, I will examine how these vehicles are made and where 3D printing can come in to disrupt the market.

Construction and Manufacturing

Much of the market is made of local shops who specialize in making police cars for a country or province or ambulances of a particular type. More capital intensive, bigger, and complex vehicles, such as fire trucks, tend to have specialized players build them. Examples such as Ferrara or Sutphen in the US are very focused specifically on US-complaint fire trucks. Conversely, Austrian firm Rosenbauer makes firetrucks for many international markets.

Because the vehicles covered in this segment are so different, we’re going to have to generalize here. However, we can see a lot of composite materials being used in this market, more so in Europe. Extruded aluminum profiles, sheet steel, and aluminum and steel panels are often used. Panels and sheet metal are cut to individual shapes via laser cutting or other processes. Bending tools, press brakes, and other equipment are used for forming, as well.

Welding is mostly performed by hand. And compared to other vehicle classes, there is an awful lot of welding going on here, especially in the US. Small groups of skilled and experienced workers assemble one vehicle at one place most of the time. A lot of work is focused on welding a profile based body atop a chassis.

Forged, cast, and some CNC components are used, but sparingly. Wiring harnesses and running these around the vehicle are also oft performed tasks. Increasingly on board power, wiring, electronics, screens and software is making its presence felt. Some vehicles are comparatively simple but fire trucks have extensive and complex pumping and other systems. Some kind of hydraulic component for ladders, lifting or doors is also common. Painting, coating, finishing and some artisanal processes complete vehicles.

The Opportunity

This market looks stagnant and difficult. Normally you’d think that larger firms would enter such a business because this kind of specialized work gives them higher revenue on top of existing products. It turns out that this market is not a happy place to be in. It is fragmented and would seem to continue to be so. There is consolidation going on in the US but worldwide not so much. What’s more with the shift to electrification assembling cars may actually get easier while this segment will continue to have a lot of labor. If you spend a few hours looking at manufacturing videos in this segment it seems as if this will be near impossible to automate. It would be far easier to automate larger segments of the automotive market still than to automate all of the changes, custom parts and individual welding and caulking in specialty vehicles. The automobile market has also implemented a far more efficient path to mass customization allowing for millions of permutations in a highly automated process.

It is hard to see anyone pour in a lot of capital in this market, It doesn’t seem like it is growing by much and competition is likely to remain entrenched. Its also very much a keeping up with the Joneses kind of market with everyone treading water all the time. There’s little in breakthrough products or manufacturing innovation. Meanwhile innovation is slow, the first US electric firetruck was sold in 2021, meanwhile China has over 420,000 electric busses in operation there. There does not seem to be a transformative technology that could really help this industry save for a very advanced robotics welding capability.

The 3D Printing Opportunity

Or is there? Many companies have huge backlogs on orders. Lead times are considerable as well. This story details how lead times used to be three to six months on ambulances in the US but are now 12 to 24 months due to lead time increases on chassis. It also decries a skilled labor shortage at ambulance builders. Backlogs are also at record levels. It takes around 400 hours or more to manufacture ambulances.

If a part of this industry changed towards integrated monocoque cab construction using large format carbon fiber polymer 3D printing they would save a lot of time and money. They could integrate a lot of places for fasteners, cabinets, equipment in the design. Through deploying software such as Twikit or Trinckle they could easily show clients many permutations of a design. The 3D printed cab design could then also be adapted to suit the new needs. This would reduce a lot of steel and aluminum reducing the energy and material use in the vehicle. The material cost will be lower at volume. There would be less weight as well and a lot less welding. Vehicles would be considerably more fuel efficient as well. The amount of labor would be significantly reduced as well. There should be a significant lead time reduction in the cab component also. Overall construction should be considerably cheaper.

Additionally 3D printed housings, tooling and jigs and fixtures will reduce costs. In this kind of a custom automobile custom housings made with material extrusion would be very cost effective here. Unique jigs and fixtures for very low volume models will be doable also. We could make some low run molds and casting type parts as well. We could make molds for wheel arches, crew compartment components, larger polymer components and parts of mechanical areas. Custom cable guides and wiring harness components could be 3D printed as well. Overall I’m very confident that a lot of manufacturing aids and intermediate components could really make a difference here. Composites 3D printing could really take on a lot of large components. Something like Impossible Objects or 9T Labs or Arrevo could be used. 3D printed molds for silicone, PU and other soft components could also make a difference in interiors. Final part production on lattice like structures would be a bit forward thinking for this market but may also be possible for touch components but cellular structures are more likely because of cleaning cycles and intensity. Reactive injection molding coupled with 3D printing could make a lot of interior components as well. Lost wax casting and SLA or DLP could be used to make small metal components also. ExOne Sand casting for molds could also really help to make low production run metal parts relatively inexpensively. Mantle could be used for mold tooling. Binder jetting could be used for some inexpensive parts. In some cases custom assemblies with a lot of parts could perhaps, but this is a stretch now, be made with powder bed fusion. Using desktop FDM printers short run parts could be made. B side parts that could be covered with interior fabric or polymer would be great candidates for this. End use components in FDM and in polymer powder bed fusion may be warranted as well.

Conclusion

On the whole there are a lot of areas. We could really help these people accelerate their time to market, reduce production time, reduce production cost, help them speed up iterations and help them speed up the production of individual custom cab components. Furthermore in manufacturing aids, tooling and end use part we could make parts faster, often at lower cost for this industry. I believe this to be a primary candidate for the next big adoption of 3D printing. I´ve rarely seen an industry where extensive investments in multiple additive manufacturing technologies would make such a competitive difference for firms.

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