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What’s Happening to the U.S. Automobile?

March 19, 2006

Filed under: life,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 16:24

The North American International Auto Show in Detroit was held last January. Lee Teschler, editor of Machine Design gave an alarming report of the show in the February 23, 2006 edition of the magazine. The show painted a bleak picture for U.S. automobile makers. An example of their competition is the new Lexus LS460, the world’s first eight-speed automatic transmission. Journalists were dazzled, according to Teschler. One journalist said that these guys could take a five-year nap and still be ahead. Other products that turned heads were Hyundai’s new Santa Fe SUV, the Acura MDX, and Volvo’s XC90.

As an example of the problem with U.S. car manufacturing, Ronald Khol, former editor of Machine Design, explained what went wrong at Cadillac in his August 4, 2005 editorial. “Cadillac not only became the car of choice for CEOs, but also for pimps and small-time neighborhood criminals,” he stated. “Even worse, the car eventually was priced where middle-class people could buy it. You began to see Cadillacs at K-Marts in addition to the country club.” Meanwhile, cars from Mercedes were priced at up to twice that of a Cadillac and it became the car of choice for image-conscience drivers. Khol said that Cadillac management lost sight of the fact that they were supposed to be selling an exclusive product and instead focused on sales volume.

Teschler, in his editorial, pointed out that Korean carmaker Hyundai did not begin to export cars to the U.S. until the mid-1980s. Quality was a problem in the beginning, with many in the U.S. not taking it seriously. Today, the problems have all but disappeared. 

At the Detroit show, the Chinese introduced the Geely, its first export to the U.S. The company claims that its quality will be superior. Teschler concluded by questioning whether U.S. auto observers will view Chinese automobiles the way many judged the early Korean cars. My advice is to them is to take the automobile very seriously. They may not be a strong contender in the beginning, but look out after they’ve established themselves.

Rapid Manufacturing

March 5, 2006

Filed under: additive manufacturing,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 13:06

I completed a project recently that required me to find many examples of rapid manufacturing. I found more than 50. It would have been difficult to find a dozen two years ago.

Rapid manufacturing is the direct production of finished goods using an additive fabrication process. An example is the manufacturing of custom in-the-ear hearing aids that are sold to customers. A broader definition is the indirect production of finished goods using an additive process. An example is the production of guides or hand tools that are used to aid in the assembly of a product. BMW and Jaguar are using fused deposition modeling and laser sintering, respectively, to produce assembly aids. 

Rapid manufacturing, in both its direct and indirect forms, eliminates the need for tooling such as molds and dies. Tooling is usually a necessary evil in manufacturing, but the many examples that I’ve found prove that it can be eliminated. In the future, this elimination of tooling—for certain types of parts—will open up the possibility of manufacturing products that before were not feasible due to time, cost, and risk.

In my search for industrial examples of rapid manufacturing, I began to realize that most companies are not discussing how they are using additive processes to manufacture parts. They are keeping it a tightly held secret because of the strategic edge that it could—and in some cases, is already having—at their organizations.

My guess is that for every example that I’ve found, there are another 5-10 examples that we will never hear about. This means that there could easily be as many as 300 to more than 500 cases in which companies have applied the concept of rapid manufacturing. That’s exciting, especially when you consider that it’s in its infancy.