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Automotive: Key Fob Case Study

3D Printing Offers Everyday Solutions in Auto Industry

3D printing is a rapidly changing industry that’s poised to transform the way we live and work, but for many people, it seems like the technology of the future — an untouchable industrial art that’s far beyond comprehension or everyday use. But that’s a big misconception.

Is 3D Printing out of Reach?

In recent years, the narrative of 3D printing has been one of innovation and breakthroughs, but it’s far from a new technology. The first patent application for a 3D printer was filed back in 1980, and the first industrial printing machines were created in 1983. Despite 3D printing’s longevity, it’s only in the last decade that its many uses have become more accessible to the general public. Because of a lack of familiarity with the technology, it still has a perception of being extremely futuristic, complex, and out of reach.

Perhaps 3D printing seems so elusive because of its most widely known associations. Among the companies largely connected to 3D printing in their everyday activities are aeronautical juggernaut Lockheed Martin and NASA, the government’s space agency. Both companies deal in complex calculations and constructions that lie far outside the average person’s skill set. And, any time you associate a rising technology with rocket science, it instantly gains a reputation of futurism-something far too complicated for the consumer market.

No – It’s being used everyday!

However, the perception that 3D printing is a spaced out technology light years away from everyday application is inaccurate. One industry that serves as a prime example of this is the automotive industry. At one point, 3D printing was used for everything from prototypes of new car models to the printing of actual car parts for vehicles in production. These highly technical uses only further contributed to 3D printing’s reputation as a rarely used, specialty production method.

But despite the truly complex issues that 3D printing has solved in the past, it can also come in handy with everyday problems. Once again, the auto industry serves as a prime example, but on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Case Study: Solving a Real Life Problem

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Recently, the team at Halo Technologies found themselves in the middle of a 3D printing conundrum when a local auto dealership reached out for help. The dealership had just purchased a $15,000 KeyMaster, which was little more than a lockbox designed to hold keys for every vehicle on their lot. However, the company from which they’d purchased the machine was no longer servicing their model, and even worse, the parent company had shifted focus to an entirely different business.

Unfortunately…

…the dealership had either worn out or lost all of their stock fobs to access the machine. They were in dire need of new ones and spent several weeks calling various businesses to track down the used parts they needed. The dealership team even copiously scanned eBay, to no avail. When it was clear that they wouldn’t be able to track down the parts, they searched for someone who could make them.

That’s when they called us.

 

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The design of the key machine wasn’t very complex to begin with (as shown below), and upon further inspection, was even easier to operate because it didn’t require use of the microchip slots located on the stock key fobs. We knew we could handle this printing job with ease, however, the curved edge of the required fob posed a possible structural issue during the actual printing process.

We replicated the stock design in CAD and tested out various print settings. When we attempted to print the part without supports, the curved portion collapsed. Even with printing the parts at varying temperatures, the resulting print was still “messy” and not ready for delivery. In an attempt to adjust how we used supports, we incorporated the support into the design file itself and this helped improve the results, but we still weren’t ready to deliver a client-worthy part.

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The last unlock for us was to switch from using ABS filament (which we’d chosen for its potential strength) to the more common PLA filament. After the switch, the parts printed with relative ease, and we were very satisfied with the final printing results of the full order. We felt confident that the job was complete and delivered the finished parts to the dealership.

But we weren’t quite finished after all. (When it comes to design and prototyping, there can be a few iterations. This is what makes 3d printing so advantageous.

A few days later, we got the call that every business owner dreads-the dealership was having some major issues with the parts we’d delivered. The key fobs were cracking when they were inserted into the machine.

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We immediately set up a meeting with the client to troubleshoot and land on a solution that would ultimately fix their problem. After the meeting, we realized that they were far less concerned with receiving an exact duplication of the original stock part and more worried about maintaining the overall functionality of the key machine. Based on this new knowledge, we scrapped our original design and created new fobs that didn’t have the long sliding hole characteristic of the origin parts. Instead, we placed two separate holes, one high and one low, for varying key lengths and kept the diameter just big enough for the standard key rings the client was already using.

We reprinted an entire new batch of parts and held our breath while the dealership tried them out over the next few days. The client immediately noticed the improvement and was satisfied with new and improved results.

3D Printing Solves Problems While Saving Money

In this case study, we were able to drastically reduce our client’s spend and help them avoid wasting another $15,000 on a second key machine. Instead, we were able to reproduce the essential parts they needed to keep their machine working in prime shape. This is just one of many examples where 3D printing has come to the rescue for the automotive industry, and it can do the same for everyday needs on much smaller scales. A traditional manufacturing solution would have taken weeks before landing on a perfect design; 3D printing solved the problem in just a matter of days.

Compared to the more complex 3D printing applications, we didn’t do something huge like print a full car. But we helped a car dealership save thousands of dollars with a simple intervention.

While printing out movie characters, iPhone stands, and novelty statues is a lot of fun, 3D printing can unlock a world full of possibility when applied to people’s everyday problems.


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