German auto maker BMW is celebrating 25 years of its tryst with additive manufacturing this year.
BMW first introduced 3D printing technology to its Rapid Technologies Center way back in 1990, before going on to build its first 3D printed prototype parts on a stereolithography machine in 1991. The company has since then used additive manufacturing technology for many other purposes, such as the development of small batches of complex and customized components.
Today, additive manufacturing methods at BMW are most commonly applied in areas that frequently require small batches of customized and sometimes also very complex components, such as pre-development, vehicle validation and testing, and concept cars. Toolmaking and operating resources are other main application areas.
A particular highlight for the technologies are completely new vehicles, such as the BMW i models, which come without predecessors. This necessitates initial prototypes being produced in large part with additive methods.
Besides using additive manufacturing for trendsetting new vehicles, an especially charming area of application for the technology is in BMW classic cars; when it comes to very old collector’s vehicles, a component might be scanned in 3D in order to generate a digital data set. Thanks to this reverse engineering method, it is possible to generate previously unavailable components for the spare parts production.
Although primarily known for their iconic vehicles, BMW has also used 3D printing for uses outside of car manufacturing. In 2012, workers at the company’s Rapid Technologies Center used additive manufacturing to design custom wheelchair seats for the British Paralympics basketball team. To produce a fully tailored product, BMW made 3D scans of each player’s body. The data from these scans was then used to create a perfectly shaped seat for each player.
In mid-2014, BMW introduced a 3D printed ergonomic tool in the vehicle assembly that protects workers against excess strains on the thumb joints while carrying out certain assembly activities. Each of these flexible assembly devices is a single piece, customized to match the form and size of a specific worker’s hand.
Another milestone has been the application of additive manufacturing methods for metal parts, which allows for new solutions and is already used in small series production.
For several years now, BMW has equipped their DTM racecars with water pump wheels made with 3D printing. The 500th 3D-printed water pump wheel was fitted in April of this year. The high-precision component, which is subject to high stresses, consists of an aluminum alloy and has previously proven its worth in the tough environment of motorsports.
Image credits: BMW Group