3D-printed brakes: How close are they?

Auto manufacturers have long been familiar with 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, due to its use in prototyping. Companies have been turning three-dimensional blueprints into physical items for decades, using this fast method of creation to compare different iterations of essential parts in development. However, as the quality of 3D printers and printable materials improves, manufacturers are pondering the next step: finished production parts created via additive manufacturing.

The benefits of 3D printing in the component supply chain could be enormous, especially when considering repair and replacement parts. Instead of keeping large stockpiles of specialized goods on hand, companies could create the needed items on demand. Of course, to unlock these advantages, manufacturers will have to ensure their methods of production are reliable enough to create safe and effective parts.

The need for reliability is especially acute when discussing braking. A component failure in auto brakes is potentially deadly for a car's driver and other motorists. Therefore, manufacturers have taken extreme precautions to ensure their additive manufacturing capabilities are up to high standards.

Bugatti's rigorous demonstration reel
High-performance automaker Bugatti spent 2018 working on a 3D-printed break caliper for the Chiron, one of its exclusive sports car models. In December, the company released an example of its testing regimen to show how far it had come and demonstrate its seriousness about creating strong components. Multiple publications picked up on the Bugatti video, with Motor Authority pointing out that the featured test simulates speeds of up to 233 miles per hour and temperatures reaching nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

"The real advantage the automaker is seeing from the new design is weight reduction."

The caliper in question is made of titanium, and is the biggest production-grade component composed of that metal, industry-wide. Motor Authority pointed out that the advanced 3D printer used to make the calipers involves 400-watt lasers and takes 45 hours to create the part. The real advantage the automaker is seeing from the new design is weight reduction: By generating calipers additively, Bugatti is able to make them a very precise shape. Each caliper clocks in at 6.4 pounds, which is 40 percent lighter than the current, traditionally manufactured version of the same part. With testing underway, the use of these parts on production cars appears imminent.

Interest throughout the Volkswagen group
As the 3D Printing Media Network noted, Bugatti isn't an independent company, but rather part of the Volkswagen group alongside the namesake brand, Porsche and more. The whole alliance of automakers is increasing the focus on 3D printing and additive manufacturing, with a whole factory in Wolfsburg, Germany being set aside for related technologies.

Pointing to information released by Volkswagen about the progress of the additive manufacturing operation, 3D Printing Media Network explained various automakers have found targeted uses for the process. Porsche, for instance, can create parts for its classic cars on 3D printers, generating items that no longer have factories to produce them. Since sports cars are often produced in small quantities to begin with, there is ample need for replacement components.

Ford's patent for lightweight discs
The Volkswagen group is not alone in the pursuit of additively manufactured brake components. As 3D Printing Industry reported, Ford has filed a patent for a lightweight disc brake production method. As with the Bugatti caliper, Ford's brake would gain a lightweight profile through the use of additive manufacturing instead of traditional methods. With 3D printed aluminum replacing machined cast iron, the new brakes would represent a 50 percent weight reduction if put into production.

To reach the market with the new type of brakes, Ford will have to overcome the challenges described in its patent application. For instance, aluminum and cast-iron alloys have a relatively low melting point and weak abrasion resistance. Ford plans to use a process with both machined brake parts and additively manufactured components fused together to create a hybrid. With the patent pending when 3D Printing Industry highlighted it, it remains to be seen how these brakes will hold up in production.

Ideas getting closer
While it's too early to give a verdict on 3D printing's value in the brake parts market, it's clear that automakers view the technology as a useful way to try out new designs. With clear benefits of flexible supply chains and potential weight reduction coming into focus, a new period of development is underway.

Any new brake design requires rigorous testing. Contact Greening for a free testing consultation to see how your methods stack up.