This is an exclusive preview of the 2017 edition of Mexico Automotive Review. If you want to get other relevant insights regarding the Mexican automotive industry, get your copy of Mexico Automotive Review 2016.
Article based on an exclusive interview with Sebastián Romo, CEO and Founder of Tridi.
Additive manufacturing, known to the public as 3-D printing, is growing at an accelerated rate and increasingly permeating traditional manufacturing practices. Globally, the 3-D printing industry surpassed US$5.17 billion in 2015, according to a report by Wohlers Associates, and it has grown at an average rate of 26.2 percent corporate annual growth for the past 27 years. Advanced 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, is increasingly used in prototyping and product development in a wide range of sectors, from dental and medical products to the automotive industry. For instance, Audi is incorporating metal 3-D printing to the manufacturing of spare parts. The company described it as “faster and more cost effective” for their purposes.
In Mexico, however, 3-D printing still has a long way to go. “Automotive companies in other countries have been using 3-D printing for manufacturing for over 20 years,” said Sebastián Romo, CEO and Founder of Tridi, “but this practice is new in Mexico.” Mexican SMEs find it hard to acquire US$5 million equipment, he explains, and OEMs are often interested in manufacturing a great number of pieces so it is hard for smaller companies to work with them. Romo explains that one of the largest challenges in Mexico is communicating the added value this technique can offer the automotive sector, as many have trouble grasping the advantages of this process.
Moreover, 3-D printing is not recommended for all steps of the manufacturing process. While it can be used to print molds for other parts, their use is limited to 20 pieces because, to date, 3-D printing is mostly performed with plastics and resins. While it is possible to use metals, the practice is still too expensive to be economically comparable to regular manufacturing processes. Romo explains that 3-D printing becomes advantageous in the case of pieces that, due to their specifications, cannot be manufactured through regular processes. The industry is seeing constant advances in materials. Last year, polycarbonate was the most resistant polymer material for the automotive industry as at the time it was too complex to print with fiberglass. Now, some 3-D printers can print exclusively with fiberglass creating extremely light and resistant pieces, comparable to those made of metal and industrial plastic.
While there is potential for the use of 3-D printing in mass production, “there is still a long way to go.” This is feasible for other sectors such as aerospace, as an OEM may manufacture an aircraft every two weeks, giving enough time to use additive manufacturing. But this is not feasible when 7,000 or 8,000 pieces are required per month. To integrate 3-D printing into the manufacturing chain the process needs to be faster.
A simple piece may take an hour to manufacture through 3-D printing, while plastic injection allows thousands of pieces to be manufactured in that same hour. Because of this, the process is also too expensive. A piece that may cost MX$150 to manufacture through 3-D printing may cost a few US cents through plastic injection. While additive manufacturing still needs to improve before being incorporated into regular manufacturing processes, the technique has successfully improved design processes by reducing time and costs.
Additive manufacturing will play a significant role in the automotive sector in the coming years, Romo explains but applications will come gradually. He predicts its relevance in optimizing final components, for vehicle part specialization, to test and validate automotive components and to manufacture tools.
In Mexico, Romo has not seen an overpowering need for this practice as many Mexican companies receive their designs from offices abroad. But he sees the market growing in the country as an increasing number of companies bring their R&D divisions to Mexico. Companies of this type now represent between 30 and 40 percent of Tridi’s clients for prototype creation. Tridi sees significant potential clients in Tier 1 and 2 companies. “OEMs have a sufficiently large infrastructure to house printing equipment and are already incorporating these process,” said Romo, “but there is significant potential in Tier 1, 2 and 3, especially in companies that specialize in plastic injection and manual assemblies.”
The company is also setting its sights north of the border. “We plan to enter the US market in 2017,” said Romo. “There is significant potential to market our processes to companies north of the border especially as lower Mexican labor costs make our services good value for money.” The company aims to optimize its processes and increase manufacturing speed to develop to 10,000 pieces from one in less than a month. This is one of the main factors that will allow 3-D printing to be a common practice in production activities and to grow in the north of Mexico and the south of the US.