It’s not uncommon for an engineer or designer at Fiat Chrysler’s tech center in Auburn Hills, Mich., to see a prototype part deposited on his or her desk less than 24 hours after ordering it.
That kind of speed -- never before consistently possible in the auto industry -- reduces development costs by cutting dramatically the amount of time and labor expended in the vehicle creation process.
What makes this possible? 3-D printing, which uses a type of plastic powder and technology similar to an inkjet printer. The device “sprays” sintered plastic powder in layers and builds the three-dimensional part. Each layer is hardened by photovoltaic light lasers. The process delivers fast test parts that not only are the correct size but can be machined and tested under stress.
The old way of making prototype parts, such as intake and exhaust manifolds -- usually by hand fabrication and often farmed out to independent specialty companies -- required weeks to create and deliver.
Now it takes just hours, says, Tom Sorovetz, a 24-year veteran casting engineer working at the Auburn Hills tech center.
At this week’s SAE World Congress in Detroit, FCA US will demonstrate its 3D capability in its display at Cobo Center.
One example of a 3-D printed part that FCA recently made is helping engineers improve the reliability and durability of rear axles, such as those used on the Ram pickup and Jeep Wrangler.
The automaker’s 3-D printer built a center clear plastic differential section. It was then machined to be assembled with gears and bearings. Regular production axles are built with metal parts.