Produced without moulds, without design restrictions and ten times faster than conventional processes: 3D printing offers almost innumerable applications. The automotive industry was among the first to make commercial use of this technology – it helps developers save time and makes them more flexible in all phases of vehicle development and production. In SEAT’s case, the in-house 3D printing laboratory is located at the SEAT Prototype Centre.
“Anything imaginable can be manufactured.” This is the motto of SEAT’s 3D printing laboratory, where a total of nine large 3D printers are in operation around the clock. They produce every conceivable component for all departments of the vehicle manufacturer – including the design, production and logistics departments. “One of the advantages is that we have virtually no restrictions on the possible shapes and can produce high-precision designs for all areas of the plant – no matter how complicated they appear. And all of this in a time that is unattainable with the normal manufacturing process,” says Norbert Martín, head of SEAT’s 3D printing laboratory.
In addition to the wide range of design possibilities, the most important advantage of 3D technology is the speed with which the parts are produced. With conventional processes such as plastic injection moulding, for example, a mould must first be made to produce a component. This alone can take weeks. With 3D printing, it’s much easier: the technicians receive a file with the design and send it to the printer just like a document. There they are applied layer by layer – each layer is up to 0.8 microns thick. After about 15 hours, the part is finished. If a component has to be modified in conventional processes, a new, modified shape must first be produced. This takes not only time, but of course also money and resources. For 3D printing, it is sufficient to change the design file.
80 percent of the printed parts at SEAT are prototypes for vehicle development. But they also produce custom tools and items for the assembly line, individual logos for exhibition and demonstration cars and even extensions for face mask bands and door loops. “With this technology, we support product development as well as production and assembly, as we supply tailor-made tools that are lightweight and ready for immediate use,” says Martín.
There are different types of 3D printing: multi-jet fusion, sinter, laser, filament fusion or UV light curing. Depending on the nature of the part, one or the other technology is more suitable because each variant makes the parts from a different material. The materials processed are polyamide powder, nylon, ABS plastics and other engineering thermoplastics.
In addition to the exact shape, a certain weight or a temperature resistance of the material up to about 100 degrees can be achieved. “For example, we use CFF printing technology (CFF = Continuous Filament Fabrication: 3D printing technology with continuous fiber materials) for the production of tools. Here, we use not only plastic but also carbon fiber for reinforcement, thus providing a lighter and very stable tool that is designed for many work cycles,” explains the head of SEAT’s 3D printing laboratory.
In the future, additive manufacturing is to be used to an even greater extent at SEAT. A future focus will be on new customer-oriented applications with user-defined parts, special series or parts that are difficult to obtain. In the future, this will also help to preserve part of SEAT’s automotive heritage, says Martín: “For example, if you need a part from one of our historic models that is no longer in production, we can print it.
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