From prototype to small series: Polypropylene revolutionises VW’s manufacturing process

Summary:  Ricoh 3D has enabled VW to produce car part prototypes using the end-use material – an innovation not previously possible for the automotive giant. 

The problem: Prior to embracing AM, The Plastic Business Segment (a division belonging to Volkwagen Group Components) had no ability to test component parts in an end-use material – instead having to rely on prototyping with materials such as PA12, which were not comparable to the final part.

The solution: VW realised the cost efficiencies of using selective laser sintered (SLS) parts in the 3D prototyping phaseBy employing Ricoh 3D’s manufacturing capabilities and the company’s industry-leading polypropylene material, VW is now able to print 3D parts to test production systems before investing in a final injection mould.

Consequently, VW manufacturing process engineers can prepare and optimise the production chain weeks, if not months, before the first injected parts are ready.

Materials such as PA12 can only be used to test the geometry of a part, but with polypropylene (PP) VW engineers also have the benefit of testing processes like welding and assembly as the prototype is created in the final end-use material. 

VW is able to use the PP sintered parts in its production line welding stations without modifying the process parameters, unlocking significant gains in efficiency.

With the introduction of a material with end-use properties, 3D product printing is now considered a serious production tool – especially for small series manufacturing. VW quickly realised the potential of AM to take their applications beyond prototyping. The technology and polypropylene material were put to use for a short run of hand glove box compartments in customised emergency vehicles, where conventional manufacturing methods were not cost effective and unable to meet the lead time.  The hand glove compartment was tested for high cycle fatigue by opening and closing 20,000 times at different temperatures (23°C, 70°C, -23°C and 55°C), passing every test. This would simply not have been possible with PA12 and automotive 3D printing.

The parts were then welded together with injected moulded components, demonstrating that SLS parts can be included in manufacturing processes without any extra steps.

SLS parts can replace injection moulded parts 1:1 which means engineers can effectively predict the life of a final injected part using PP sintered equivalents. This is a huge advance in the accuracy and efficiency of VW’s manufacturing process, opening the doors for customisation and small series production.