How Digital Manufacturing Can Help Drive Development in the Automotive Industry

A report from Protolabs highlights key ways Industry 4.0 can serve auto innovators.

(Image courtesy of Protolabs.)

(Image courtesy of Protolabs.)

On-demand digital manufacturing firm Protolabs recently released a report on the booming electric vehicle (EV) and autonomous vehicle (AV) markets and how digital manufacturing may play a critical role for automotive manufacturers looking to keep pace with the trends.

According to multiple sources, transportation makes up approximately 14 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Changing attitudes toward climate change may be one factor in the recent growth of EVs. Of course, depending on a region’s power generation, respective environmental impacts of the natural resources, supply chain and recyclability of EVs and the powerful batteries that run them, the jury is still out on the net benefit of EVs as a climate change solution. Despite this, EVs are on the rise globally.

Of course, aside from their potentially lower net carbon emissions, EVs have other benefits that boost their appeal in today’s market. Many governments offer rebates and tax credits to promote the purchase of EVs, which can help offset the cost of a new vehicle. EVs also don’t produce exhaust gases or noise. They typically have better fuel economy and lower fuel costs than comparable internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles and require less frequent maintenance. Lastly, as the next generation of new vehicles, EVs often have advanced features, such as Tesla’s infamous “ludicrous” acceleration.

The EV Boom

The story of the EV market today mirrors that of many other disrupted industries. The concept of the electric car has been around for centuries, but it arguably wasn’t until Elon Musk made it sexy, putting today’s powerful motors and lithium-ion battery tech into a modified Lotus back in 2008, that the general public took notice. Other automakers took notice too. In 2020, EVs accounted for less than 2 percent of U.S. vehicle sales. Between that year and 2021, EV investments rose by 41 percent. By 2025, total EV investment across the industry may reach $330 billion, according to Alix Partners Research. As per IHS market research, GM plans to spend $35 billion in that time, and Volkswagen plans to spend $42 billion. Wedbush Securities values the EV industry at a whopping $5 trillion by 2030. GM has set a goal to focus solely on EVs for passenger vehicles by 2035. According to UBS Investment Bank, by 2040, virtually every new car sold will be electric.

That’s a lot of numbers, but they tell a compelling tale almost echoing the way the smartphone supplanted the “dumb” phone. The way these analysts tell it, owning an internal combustion engine in 2040 may be a bit like owning a DVD player in 2021. Sure, it has a few niche strengths, but the use of it will likely decline as the infrastructure that supports it slowly disappears. Today, it seems far-fetched, but as Protolabs pointed out in the report, it harkens back to an apocryphal Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, ‘faster horses.’”

So, how are automakers large and small preparing to meet the demands of this electric future? In the report, Protolabs outlined five ways EV innovation is being driven by digital manufacturing.

Modern Mindset

In the past, it’s been exceedingly rare for a small automotive startup company to impact the bottom line or future prospects of the world’s largest OEMs. However, the emerging EV space has had a leveling effect on the playing field, with all automakers, large and small, struggling to innovate the fastest. To compete with the agility of small players, the design and engineering processes of the largest automakers are changing. Rapid iteration and prototyping are important and key strengths of digital manufacturing technologies.

Better Quality and Traceability

The digital and automated nature of software-controlled manufacturing processes, such as CNC machining and additive manufacturing, allows for complete traceability of materials and parts. The automotive industry stands to benefit greatly from this enhanced quality and transparency, especially as automakers develop vehicles with more new parts than previous vehicles that are often largely based on existing platforms.

Low-Volume Production

As compared to Industry 4.0 technology, Industry 3.0 is often defined by economies of scale and mass production. Last-generation manufacturing paradigms and processes can’t cost-effectively produce low volumes of parts, relying on expensive tooling that demands volume. With digital production, lower volumes can be run cost-effectively. When a machine, such as a 3D printer, is following digital instructions, a build volume has the same cost whether it includes 1,000 identical parts or 1,000 unique parts. In addition, part suppliers and manufacturers won’t take a contract without sufficient volume. Digital manufacturing service providers can deliver a single part if needed.

Single Supplier

In the past, automakers may have needed to use one supplier to get parts quickly or cheaply during development but switch to another supplier to obtain better quality later in production. According to Protolabs, the flexibility, speed and quality of digital manufacturing mean OEMs can rely on a single supplier through development to production, streamlining the product lifecycle.


Lastly, digital manufacturing is fast, which is essential for automotive engineers focused on developing innovative new vehicles. The EV boom is fast-moving and unpredictable, and OEMs need to stay agile to keep up. Digital manufacturing enables faster low-volume production without sacrificing quality.

Digital Manufacturing and Supply Shortages

In addition to these five ways, the report also highlighted digital manufacturing’s flexibility in the face of supply chain challenges and shortages, such as those faced by the industry today due to COVID-19, the recent Suez Canal blockage and other factors—some possibly exacerbated by climate change, such as hurricanes in the Gulf or the polar vortex in Texas. Procurement flexibility, including sourcing goods and materials regionally, carrying more inventory and spot buying are keys to navigating these shortages and disruptions. In the face of shortages, strong-arming suppliers won’t work. Building relationships and collaborating with suppliers is more likely to enable problem-solving that will benefit everyone.

According to Protolabs, on-demand digital manufacturing services, in which a customer uploads a CAD model and the service provider gives feedback on the design and manufacturability, can help address these shortages as well. For example, facing resin shortages, Protolabs may recommend alternative materials. For a customer facing stalled or delayed production overseas, Protolabs can manufacture hard or soft tooling that can be used to run parts until the delays are resolved or help redesign the parts to allow manufacturing alternatives.

In addition, Protolabs touts the speed of digital manufacturing services as a solution to the timing and scheduling headaches brought on by supply chain issues.

Autonomous Vehicles: The Holy Grail of Automotive Innovation

Automakers aren’t just in an arms race for EVs. Autonomous driving, and the various stages of it, are now considered the true next generation of the passenger vehicle. While today’s new vehicles are beginning to offer low-level autonomy features, such as parking assist, advanced cruise control and lane-keeping technology, LIDAR systems and other technology that enable high-level automation of the driving experience are in development across the industry.

Tesla’s autopilot sensors and cameras. (Image courtesy of Tesla.)

Tesla’s autopilot sensors and cameras. (Image courtesy of Tesla.)

The industry generally speaks of AV technology in terms of five levels. At the first level are driver-assist features like cruise control. At the top fifth level is full autopilot in a vehicle that may not even have a steering wheel or other driver controls. The report from Protolabs considers the levels of autonomous driving by the level of driver involvement. Level one lets the driver take their feet off, with the car controlling the pedals. Level two lets the driver take their hands off, with the car controlling some steering during parts of the drive, such as lane-keeping or maintaining distance from the car in front. Level three lets the driver take their eyes off the road, perhaps reading or focusing on something else, but is still in control in certain parts of the drive in case of emergencies. Levels four and five let the driver take their minds off driving, eliminating the need to take control at any point during the journey.

In addition to the engineering innovation that is still needed to make these systems work, the vehicles they’ll be going into will be completely new—necessitating agile, digital manufacturing for large and small car makers alike.

You can read the full report here.