As merger discussions occupied the attention of the additive manufacturing (AM) industry this year, a key development was taking place: multiple automotive giants began discussing their use of casting based on large-scale, 3D printed sand molds and cores as essential for their production strategies. Now, that development has come to a head as General Motors (GM) has made a strategic acquisition of Tooling & Equipment International (TEI), a key player in developing gigacasting technology for Tesla, marking a significant move in the automotive industry.
3D Printing Drives Tesla’s Gigacasting
Gigacasting is a manufacturing process developed by Tesla for producing large-scale, single-piece castings for automotive parts. This method involves casting entire sections of a vehicle’s structure, such as the underbody or frame, in one piece. The process relies on massive casting machines, often referred to as “Giga Presses,” which are some of the largest casting machines in the world. Gigacasting aims to simplify vehicle assembly, reduce production costs, and enhance the structural integrity and quality of the vehicles. By reducing the number of parts and joints in a vehicle’s frame, gigacasting also helps to streamline the manufacturing process and improve overall vehicle performance and safety.
Essential to Tesla’ gigacasting technique is the use of sand 3D printing, offered by TEI. It was revealed this year that Tesla was further advancing the use of 3D printed sand molds for casting large, complex car parts in one go, aiming to revolutionize car manufacturing by making it faster and cheaper.
This approach could dramatically reduce the cost and time involved in producing electric vehicles (EVs), especially for large components like a car’s underbody. Traditional metal molds are expensive and time-consuming to alter, but 3D printed sand molds offer a more flexible and cost-effective solution, enabling rapid design revisions and innovation. This development aligns with Tesla’s broader “unboxed” manufacturing strategy, which seeks to streamline production and reduce costs, further solidifying Tesla’s position as a disruptor in the automotive industry.
Leveraging Sand 3D Printing to Lap Tesla
The showing of Tesla’s hand in the use of 3D printing for gigacasting actually followed earlier news from GM that it was leveraging voxeljet AG‘s (Nasdaq: VJET) large-scale 3D printing technology, specifically the VX4000 sand 3D printer, for the production of its Cadillac CELESTIQ. The CELESTIQ, priced at $300,000 and featuring over 100 3D printed parts, is set to be a limited series luxury EV. The use of voxeljet’s VX4000 for sand casting enables GM to replace multiple stamped components with fewer, large precision sand-cast aluminum parts, enhancing efficiency and reducing weight.
GM’s acquisition of TEI is crucial for its strategy to compete with Tesla, especially as Tesla advances towards launching a $25,000 electric vehicle (EV). TEI’s expertise in sand casting techniques played a pivotal role in Tesla’s gigacasting innovations.
With TEI now under GM’s umbrella, Tesla is turning to its other casting partners in Britain, Germany, and Japan for continuing its gigacasting developments. This shift also prompts Tesla to consider developing such expertise in-house or finding new partners to reduce reliance on external suppliers. Meanwhile, GM’s acquisition of TEI, particularly its capabilities in sand casting and rapid prototyping, will bolster its efforts to manufacture cars more efficiently and cost-effectively.
By integrating TEI’s casting technology, GM strengthens its position in the competitive EV market, where gigacasting is increasingly seen as a key to manufacturing efficiency and cost reduction. The acquisition, valued at less than $100 million, positions GM to better compete with Tesla and other automakers rapidly adopting gigacasting and other innovative manufacturing techniques.
Other Automotive Giants
However, GM and Tesla aren’t the only ones using large-format sand 3D printing for casting car parts. BMW’s Landshut plant, in collaboration with Loramendi and voxeljet, developed the ability to automatically 3D print large-scale sand cores for casting cylinder heads for high-efficiency engines. he process involves an automated production line with voxeljet’s VX1300-X printer and Loramendi’s Microwave-Curing, allowing the production of thousands of 3D printed cores weekly, enhancing engine efficiency and reducing consumption.
Toyota, too, announced that it would rely on gigacasting for the rear section of its vehicles, replacing a previous design that consisted of 33 different components with a single large metal piece. The first EV model, debuting under the Lexus brand in 2026, will boast a next-gen lithium-ion battery with a range of over 600 miles.
In other words, gigacasting is now being presented as essential to the future of EV manufacturing. Whether or not that actually is the case, it’s a pivotal development in the AM sector. For some time, 3D printing companies have targeted the automotive space for end part production, with the production of components for consumer vehicles representing the transformation of AM into a mass manufacturing technology.
Thanks to the more recent boost to the binder jet 3D printing space, car companies are now believing that the technology could be ready for primetime. While metal binder jetting was proposed as the process that would make that possible, it’s now appearing that sand 3D printing for gigacasting could be even more of a breakthrough.
The development is akin to how 3D Systems’ stereolithography singlehandedly shaped the dental market by enabling the production of custom molds for thermoforming dental aligners. Rather being used for direct part manufacturing, sand 3D printing could redefine vehicle production.
How Gigacasting Impacts 3D Printing
This occurs at a time that could be essential for the livelihoods of more than a few AM companies. Sand 3D printing pioneer voxeljet has long struggled on the public markets due to the very niche applications of its technology. However, now that it is being used by the world’s largest car companies, it could very well be reinvigorated to fulfill its potential. This is something that the firm seems to be aware of, as it recently announced a formal review to explore strategic alternatives, potentially leading to mergers, investments, or joint ventures.
Meanwhile, Desktop Metal (NYSE: DM), HP (NYSE: HPQ), and GE (NYSE: GE) can all likely benefit from the gigacasting hype. Though it measures just about one-eighth voxeljet’s largest sand printing system, Desktop Metal’s S-Max Pro is sufficiently large for auto parts, which is why it can claim many of the same customers that are trying to implement voxeljet’s massive machine. This includes BMW, which is shown in the video above.
Desktop Metal reported a 9.13% revenue dip in Q3 2023, navigating challenges after its terminated agreement with Stratasys. The company saw an improvement in gross margins but experienced a decrease in cash and investments. The aftermath of the Stratasys deal impacted revenue, but most deals were finalized soon after, promising a stronger Q4.Nevertheless, like most public AM companies, Desktop Metal has faced a rocky couple of years financially and the gigacasting trend could give it a significant boost.
While HP and GE Additive to haven’t sand 3D printing offerings, they do have automotive customers using their metal binder jet technologies. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, if this gigacasting boon didn’t lead to their acquisition of voxeljet or Desktop Metal. We might even imagine a Chinese firm taking the technology in-house, given how essential Chinese manufacturers are to the overall automotive sector.
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