Printing Spare Parts for Mercedes-Benz

Daimler announces a 3D-printing breakthrough in its manufacture of automotive parts.
10 August, 2017
The automotive industry's technology shifts often get attention with royal treatment from prestigious car shows or glossy industry magazines.
This time, instead of lightweight materials or additive manufacturing, it's a lowly truck thermostat cover previously out of production that's getting a good look. That is because Mercedes-Benz has just finished the first successful 3D printing of metal spare parts for its truck line, making good on a promise that followed last year's printing of plastic components.

The company announced in August that the thermostat cover, used in older trucks and Unimog models that haven't been built in 15 years, was successfully manufactured using a powdered aluminium silicon material and printed with a Selective Laser Melting (SLM) process. The result was a high-strength component that can hold up to extreme temperatures and be manufactured affordably in low quantities.

That's a real breakthrough for several reasons, beyond the obvious satisfaction of the end user who needs a hard-to-find part.
The particular added value of 3D printing technology is that it considerably increases speed and flexibility, especially when producing spare and special parts. This gives us completely new possibilities for offering our customers spare parts rapidly and at attractive prices, even long after series production has ceased.
Andreas Deuschle, Head of Marketing & Operations in Customer Services & Parts at Mercedes-Benz Trucks
The new manufacturing achievement extends parent company Daimler's commitment to 3D manufacturing, which is already used to make more than 100,000 component prototypes. Covers, spacers, spring caps, air and cable ducts, clamps, mountings and control elements in plastic are just a few examples. Since the process relies on digital blueprints, now the metallic components too can be produced "at the touch of a button" to match any geometry and then deliver them in any quantity.
Image: Daimler
That means there's little cost attached to producing them, and even less operational expense for keeping them in warehouses or shipping them long distances. In theory, a Daimler design could be transmitted digitally from Stuttgart to an additive manufacturing contractor in China, Brazil or South Africa, and then be processed locally or regionally. That amounts to a radical shift in the traditional industry supply chain. It also would mean less waiting for parts on the customer's end, especially when a part is hard to find.

Other automotive manufacturers, Volkswagen and BMW among them, have relied on 3D printing to accelerate modeling and prototypes, or to generate some printed parts. The additive manufacturing process still accounts for less than 1 percent of all metal parts, but is expected to grow as the cost comes down. Management consultant Roland Berger expects a drop between 25 and 45 percent by 2020.
Images: 3D Print
So while Daimler's move into 3D replacement parts production begins with rarely ordered aluminium parts, it is expected to extend to other manufacturing – and not just because of the cost savings. The aluminium-powder thermostat cover has almost 100 percent density and greater purity than a conventionally die-cast part, the company says. They're hard and strong, have high dynamic resistance, and perform well under thermal stress.

"Conceivable areas of use are peripheral engine parts made of metal, in-engine parts and also parts in cooling systems, transmissions, axles or chassis," Daimler says. "Especially when they have complex structures, 3D-printed metal parts in small numbers can be produced cost-effectively as infrequently requested replacement parts, special parts and for small and classic model series."
Banner image: Daimler