For Boeing Starliner and Goodyear Tesla tires, 3D printing is a reality

An image showing a non-pneumatic (NPT) tire, airless tires, is shown during a demonstration of Goodyear’s NPT tire in Colmar-Berg, Luxembourg, on May 17, 2022, as the tire manufacturer has a new factory where it is experimenting with 3D printing.

Francois Walcherts | Afp | Getty Images

Additive manufacturing is on the cusp of being widely adopted by the industry, as large companies Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and Boeing as well as small innovative companies have proven they can do well at large in manufacturing.

In May, Goodyear opened a $77 million factory in Luxembourg that focuses on 3D printing and can make tires four times faster than conventional production. Goodyear is also testing its new 3D-printed pneumatic tire technology on Tesla electric vehicles and Starship Technologies’ autonomous delivery robots. She has been working for the past several years on improved manufacturing technologies 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 by Akron tire industry leader who was founded in 1898 and named after innovator Charles Goodyear. Currently, about 2% of its production is produced through additive manufacturing and there is more integration into the mix on the horizon.

“As with any innovation, targeting the right use case is key. 3D printing isn’t right for every job. We use additive manufacturing for high-performance, high-performance tires that require much more complexity and in lower numbers,” said Chris Hillsell, senior vice president of global operations and president of Goodyear Technology Division “There is still a benefit in efficiently making large batches of tires from a regular assembly line.”

Taking advantage of new technology requires patience. “You can’t bring it up and run,” Helsel said. “It’s not a short ride. We’ve been on this road for 10-12 years.” In an initial commercialization of its 3D-printed pneumatic tires in 2017, Goodyear began making premium models of Bad Boy Mowers lawn mowers.

The recent history and future growth of 3D printing

Layer-by-layer object-printing technology dates back to the early 1980s. Now it’s transforming factories and is no longer considered a novelty, despite being popularized over a decade ago by desktop 3D printing company MakerBot in the consumer hobbyist market. Today, a range of products from aircraft parts to orthodontics and car seats are additionally manufactured.

This new technology is seen as a competitive advantage and a way to enhance the manufacturing base and supply chain in the United States. But it may not revolutionize industrial production in general.

“Additional manufacturing remains a very small niche technology,” said Joerg Bromberger, director of strategy and operations at McKinsey in Berlin and lead author of the consultancy’s latest report on industrial technology. “Intensive investment in additive manufacturing could have some effect but it is still very limited,” he said.

Primarily useful for making high-value specialty parts and smaller production volumes, Bromberger has tied additive manufacturing to 2-3% of the $12 trillion production market.

3D printing industry consultant Wohlers Associates expects additive manufacturing to grow at a relatively robust pace and expects the worldwide market to reach $85.3 billion in 2031 from $15.2 billion in 2021. The leading industrial sector using technology is aerospace, followed by medicine/ dentistry and automobiles, while the most common applications of 3D printing are to make end-use parts and functional prototypes, according to the company’s Wohlers 2022 report.

Key advantages of the technology include design flexibility in different 3D shapes that can perform better or less costly, and custom production of parts. Another advantage is the elimination of time-consuming pre-production processes and the making of products to order from digital files.

The main drawback to adoption is the investment costs. Industrial 3D printing machines can range in price from $25,000 to $500,000 and even $1 million for bulky systems. Additional limitations are the lack of engineering talent to implement the technology, the knowledge gap between companies about why and how to use it, the store floor’s cultural resistance to change, and the lack of end-to-end 3D printing systems.

Ongoing supplier consolidation in the industrial market can provide more complete services and one-stop purchasing for manufacturers. For example, Desktop Metal of Burlington, Massachusetts, acquired ExOne Company of North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania in a November 2021 deal that brought several additive manufacturing solutions under one roof.

But the stock market’s acceptance of 3D printing as a pure investment topic hasn’t done well in recent years. Desktop Metal has lost nearly 80% of its value since it went public in 2021, and other 3D printing sector plays have performed poorly even as the technology advanced.

In another notable partnership, some of the nation’s largest industrial companies are working with family-owned Rust Belt for 3D printing components.

The 63-year-old, family-owned Humtown Products foundry near Youngstown, Ohio, adopted 3D printing in 2014 as an effective method for making industrial molds and molds. Its early adoption helped the company stay in business after suffering the 2009 recession and as the US foundry business moved abroad or faded in the face of cheaper overseas competition. Humtown Products has been able to retain large corporate clients including GE, Caterpillar and Cummins.

Today, the additive manufacturing division accounts for 55% of total revenue and is growing at 50% annually. Owner and President Marc LaMoncha said the switch to 3D printing was a “Kodak moment” for the company. “If you’re not in the next place, you’re out of work,” LaMoncha said. “This industry is at a turning point in terms of marketing and in many disciplines it is the equivalent of driving a racing car,” he said.

Cummins truck engine builder uses Humtown as a supplier that can improve its accuracy in making 3D-printed castings, and has simplified production by printing large parts in one piece instead of composite materials. “We’ve had good success with that. Volumes are starting to go up, and while prices are still a little bit higher than conventional operations, they are more accurate, and we’ve been able to triple our processing capacity, or Cummins technical advisor Larry Lee said.

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

Hometown Products

Humtown Products has been able to leverage technology through Youngstown’s suite of 3D printing resources that have been backed by businesses, government, and academia to help revive the local economy of the former steel city. This technology hub includes several entities that are putting Northeast Ohio at the forefront of the 3D printing industrial revolution: the government-backed industry accelerator America Makes, the Youngstown business incubator with 12 added startups, such as industrial machine maker and designer JuggerBot3d, and the State University Center Youngstown Additive Manufacturing Innovation and Training Center with a new value of $12 million.

“Regions are seeing an opportunity to build a workforce around this technology, but there is still a knowledge gap around lessons learned and success stories,” said John Welchinsky, America Makes CEO. “We aim to bridge this gap.”

Boeing Aerospace is working hard to improve its own approach to additive manufacturing. The Boeing Additive Manufacturing Center in Auburn, Washington is designed to research the use of cutting-edge technology.

Melissa Ormi, who has served as vice president of additive manufacturing since 2019, said the company’s three businesses include units that make commercial aircraft, satellites and defense systems. She works with a team of 100 engineers, researchers, and other technology development professionals.

Orme noted the advantages of 10 times reduced production lead times, simplified design in one large piece for assembly, and increased durability.

“Right now, we’re very much into the use of 3D printing for satellites, and it may become a norm to have 3D-printed parts on every satellite,” she said.

For Boeing subsidiary Millennium Space Systems, which was acquired in 2018 as a manufacturer of small satellites for the national security space, 100% of 3D satellites have been built this year at 30% lower cost and a five-month reduction in production lead time. A regular user of this 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 tools for 787 wings.

However, challenges remain in adopting the new technology. “It takes a cultural shift to embrace,” Orm said. “Engineers are taught to design with reduced risk, and this leads them to traditional manufacturing. We need more production data to reach a level of design comfort for additives,” she said, which equates to seven decades of data on traditional manufacturing. “Once we do that, we can eliminate or reduce the risks of this cutting-edge technology,” she said.

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