From the Boeing Starliner to the Goodyear Tesla tire, 3D printing becomes a manufacturing reality

From the Boeing Starliner to the Goodyear Tesla tire, 3D printing becomes a manufacturing reality

A picture shows a non-pneumatic tire (NPT), an airless tire, during the presentation of Goodyear’s NPT tire in Colmar-Berg, Luxembourg May 17, 2022, where the tire maker has a new plant where it is experimenting with 3D printing.

Francois Walschaerts | AFP | Getty Images

Additive manufacturing is on the verge of being more widely adopted by the industry, as large companies like Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and Boeing, as well as small innovative start-ups, prove it can work well in large-scale manufacturing.

In May, Goodyear opened a $77 million facility in Luxembourg that focuses on 3D printing and can produce tires in small batches four times faster than traditional production. Goodyear is also testing its new 3D printed airless tire technology on Tesla electric vehicles and Starship Technologies autonomous delivery robots. It has spent the last few years working on improved manufacturing techniques at a research and development center near Columbus, Ohio.

By 2030, Goodyear aims to bring maintenance-free and airless tires to market, and 3D printing is part of that effort for the Akron-based tire manufacturer, founded in 1898 and named after innovator Charles Goodyear. Currently, about 2% of production is done through additive manufacturing, and more integration into the mix is ​​on the horizon.

“As with any innovation, targeting the right use case is crucial. 3D printing is not suitable for every job. We use additive manufacturing for high-end, ultra-high performance tires that are much more complex and required in smaller batch sizes,” said Chris Helsel, Goodyear’s senior vice president, global operations and CTO. “It’s still an advantage to to produce large series of tires efficiently on a normal assembly line.”

Using the new technology requires patience. “You can’t bring it in, turn it on. It’s not a short journey. We’ve been on this route for 10 to 12 years,” said Helsel. In an initial commercialization of its 3D printed airless tires in 2017, Goodyear began outfitting premium Bad Boy Mowers lawnmower models.

Recent history and future growth of 3D printing

The technology of printing objects layer by layer from computer-aided designs dates back to the early 1980s. Now it’s transforming factories and is no longer considered a novelty, although it was popularized in the consumer hobbyist market over a decade ago by desktop 3D printing company MakerBot. Today, a range of products, from aircraft parts to dental splints to car seats, are additively manufactured.

This new technology is seen as a competitive advantage and an opportunity to improve the US manufacturing base and supply chain. But it must not revolutionize industrial production as a whole.

“Additive manufacturing is still a very small, specialized technology,” said Joerg Bromberger, director of strategy and operations at McKinsey in Berlin and lead author of the consulting firm’s recent report on industrial technology. “Heavy investment in additive manufacturing can have some effect, but it’s still quite limited,” he said.

Primarily suited to the manufacture of specialized high-quality parts and lower production volumes, Bromberger estimates additive manufacturing accounts for 2-3% of the $12 trillion manufacturing market.

3D printing industry consultant Wohlers Associates expects additive manufacturing to grow relatively strongly, forecasting the market to reach $85.3 billion globally in 2031, up from $15.2 billion in 2021. The leading industrial sector utilizing this technology is aerospace, followed by medical/dental and automotive, while the most common applications for 3D printing are the manufacture of end-use parts and functional prototypes, according to the company’s Wohlers Report 2022 .

Key benefits of the technology include design flexibility in various 3D shapes that perform better or cost less, and custom production of parts. Other advantages include the elimination of time-consuming pre-production processes and the on-demand manufacture of products from digital files.

A major obstacle to adoption is the investment cost. Prices for industrial 3D printing machines can range from $25,000 to $500,000 and up to $1 million for huge systems. Other limitations include a lack of engineering talent to implement the technology, a lack of knowledge among companies about why and how to use it, cultural resistance in manufacturing to change, and too few end-to-end 3D printing systems.

The consolidation of suppliers that is underway in the industrial market could provide manufacturers with more comprehensive service and one-stop purchasing. For example, Burlington, Massachusetts-based Desktop Metal acquired The ExOne Company of North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania in November 2021, bringing multiple additive manufacturing solutions under one roof.

But 3D printing as a pure investment topic has not been well received on the stock market in recent years. Desktop Metal has lost almost 80% of its value since going public in 2021, and other companies in the 3D printing sector have performed poorly despite technological advances.

In another notable partnership, some of the country’s largest industrial companies are collaborating with a Rust Belt family business to 3D print components.

Humtown Products, a 63-year-old, family-owned foundry near Youngstown, Ohio, adopted 3D printing in 2014 as an efficient way to manufacture industrial cores and molds. Its early adoption helped the company stay in business after battling through the 2009 recession and as the US foundry business moved overseas or died out in the face of cheaper overseas competition. Humtown Products has been able to retain large corporate customers such as GE, Caterpillar and Cummins.

Today, the Additive Manufacturing business accounts for 55% of total sales and is growing at 50% annually. The move to 3D printing was the company’s “Kodak moment,” said owner and president Mark Lamoncha. “If you’re not in the next room, you’re out of business,” Lamoncha said. “This industry is at a tipping point towards commercialization and in many disciplines it’s the equivalent of driving a race car,” he said.

Truck engine builder Cummins uses Humtown as a supplier who can improve its accuracy when making 3D printed castings and has streamlined production by printing large parts in one piece instead of composites. “We have had good success with it. Volumes are starting to increase and while prices are still slightly higher than traditional processes, it’s much more accurate and we’ve been able to triple our process capacity, or output,” said Cummins Technical Advisor Larry Lee.

Humtown Products, a 63-year-old, family-owned foundry near Youngstown, Ohio, first adopted 3D printing in 2014 to produce industrial cores and molds for customers including GE, Cummins and Caterpillar.

Humtown Products

Humtown Products was able to leverage the technology through a cluster of 3D printing resources in Youngstown, which have supported businesses, governments and academia to help revitalize the former steel town’s local economy. This tech hub includes multiple facilities that position Northeast Ohio at the forefront of the 3D printing industrial revolution: federally-backed industry accelerator America Makes, Youngstown Business Incubator, which hosts 12 additive startups including industrial machine builder and designer JuggerBot3d, and Youngstown State University’s Center for Innovation in Additive Manufacturing and a new $12 million Training Center for Excellence.

“Regions see an opportunity to build workforces around this technology, but there is still a knowledge gap in terms of lessons learned and success stories,” said John Wilczynski, executive director of America Makes. “We want to fill this gap.”

Aerospace company Boeing is working hard to refine its own approach to additive manufacturing. Boeing’s Additive Manufacturing Fabrication Center in Auburn, Washington was developed to explore the use of cutting-edge technology.

“It’s definitely a competitive advantage for the industry because they can design in ways that aren’t possible with traditional production,” said Melissa Orme, who has served as vice president of additive manufacturing since 2019, a role that spans all three businesses of the company spans units that manufacture commercial aircraft, satellites and defense systems. She works with a team of 100 engineers, researchers and other specialists to advance the development of the technology.

Orme cited the tenfold reduction in lead time for production, the optimized design in one large piece for assembly and the increased durability as advantages.

“Right now we are very mature in using 3D printing for satellites,” she said. “It could become the standard to have 3D printed parts on every satellite.”

Boeing’s Millennium Space Systems subsidiary, acquired in 2018 as a maker of small satellites for national security, produced 100% 3D-printed satellites this year at 30% lower costs and a five-month reduction in production lead time. A regular user of the technology for several years, Boeing also has 3D printed parts for helicopters and seats for the Starliner spacecraft, as well as components for the Boeing 787 and tooling for 787 aircraft wings.

Nevertheless, challenges remain in the introduction of the new technology. “It requires a cultural shift to embrace it,” Orme said. “Engineers are taught to design with reduced risk and that leads them to traditional manufacturing. We need more production data to achieve comfortable design for additives,” she said, which equates to seven decades of data on traditional manufacturing. “Once we do that, we can eliminate or mitigate the risk of this emerging technology,” she said.