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Metal X Spotlight: A Competitive Advantage for Electric Vehicle Busbar Prototypes

By Ross Adams, Global Metal Product Manager

While internal combustion engines still fuel the majority of today’s cars, electric vehicles (EVs) will have a major role shaping the future of transportation and automotive. Research shows that EV sales have leaped over 40% a year since 2016, with EVs projected to be the largest market in the automotive sector in the next 10-15 years.

Despite the industry’s growth, automotive providers still struggle to achieve profitability on EVs sold due to manufacturing challenges: many components for EVs are complex and difficult to manufacture efficiently.

Just like vehicles powered by fossil fuels, entire supply chains are being built around electric vehicles. As Tier 1,2, and 3 automotive suppliers scramble to win business in this market, their competitive advantages will be cost savings, time to market, and design optimization.

To build tighter and more efficient supply chains wherever possible, automotive manufacturers must examine every area of opportunity. One opportunity is 3D printing electrical components, such as busbars, with pure Copper on the Metal X system. In this article we will explore how prototyping these components enables companies to accelerate time to market, while realizing areas for cost reduction and design optimization.

Busbar designs: complex but important

A busbar is an electroconductive metallic bar that distributes current to subsystems in intensive electrical applications, such as electric vehicles.

In EVs, a well-designed busbar is a critical component for efficient power distribution across the vehicle. Designing the right busbar can be complex, however—engineers must work with multiple constraints. The right busbar design is important for achieving optimal electrical performance, but requires you to work within the boundaries of both form factor constraints and heat dissipation requirements.

Busbars in electric vehicles are often made of pure Copper, due to the material’s high electrical conductivity. Pure copper has excellent electrical properties, but is a difficult material to work with in traditional manufacturing: which means high price tags and long lead times.

Using today's technology for a competitive advantage

Working within the additive manufacturing industry, I am firsthand witnessing the struggles that automotive suppliers are facing to quickly and cheaply prototype Copper parts. These components are critical, and it is exciting to realize that our technology can help alleviate these challenges. Considering the busbar’s performance demands are within the capabilities of metal 3D printing today, it’s a pretty perfect candidate for a strong, high-value additive application.

Typically, getting a busbar prototype in hand through traditional manufacturing processes will cost somewhere around $200 per iteration, with a lead time of around three weeks. While it typically takes a series of iterations to arrive at an optimized part, it’s common for high costs and long lead times to force a compromise in the number of iterations designers can go through. The need to meet tight deadlines may mean that a truly optimized part may not be realized.

The ability to 3D print in pure Copper to prototype busbar designs offers electric vehicle suppliers several competitive advantages: reducing cost on each iteration, avoiding long lead times due to bottlenecks in machining centers, and empowering engineers to rapid prototype on experimental designs. Printing a busbar prototype with the Metal X System in pure Copper would typically cost around only $55 with a lead time of just three days. The Metal X can turn around nine iterations in the same time it takes to get just a single iteration through traditional fabrication—allowing engineers to test designs in real-world conditions with time that would otherwise be spent waiting for parts to arrive.

Our Metal X system makes it faster, cheaper, and easier than ever to rapidly prototype with electroconductive materials. It’s the first metal 3D printer that is capable of printing pure Copper parts. Alternative metal AM technologies can print only Copper alloys; since production busbars must be made of pure Copper, prototyping alloys will not yield the same performance insights needed for the production part.

Prototyping is easy now. but it wasn't always

Prototyping is invaluable to the design process. Pretty much any team of engineers will unanimously agree that the ability to quickly and economically turn a digital 3D model into a physical object — one that can be tested in real world conditions — can provide very favorable returns on investments for organizations that want to beat their competition by bringing the best products to the market faster.

Today, the availability of quick-turnaround fabrication technology has made prototyping easy. Continuous fiber-reinforced composite printers can make aluminum-strength parts in hours. Metal 3D printers that can even put parts made out of stainless steel, tool steels, pure Copper, and Inconel in your hand the next day. While today’s 3D printers make prototyping easy, this wasn’t always the case: previously, manufacturers had to dedicate valuable machinist bandwidth and/or contract third-party service providers to get each prototype in hand.

Prototypes are easy, production is hard"
– Elon Musk

The difference is pretty obvious when you’re able to hold your design in your hand and see its improvements—especially when the time between iterations is days apart, not weeks. Significantly more time and budget to experiment, evaluate, and implement changes means you’ll have many more tries to nail down the perfect design. At the very least you’ll produce a much more refined design in a given time frame, if not sooner.

Design cycles exploiting the faster cadence enabled by 3D printing usually have a much higher level of design optimization than those that rely on traditional manufacturing. And that difference might be the competitive advantage that allows your shop to become the supplier awarded the contract: helping your business diversify and expand into the growing electrical vehicle market.

Busbar prototypes and other industrial parts with the Metal X

Metallic properties for 3D-printed, production-level busbar prototypes can only be achieved using the Metal X system. Along with busbars, 3D printed pure copper is ideal for industrial applications such as welding shanks, heat sinks, heat exchangers, cold plates, EDM electrodes, and more.

Other industrial metals in the Metal X’s portfolio are available with just a five-minute material changeover process—including stainless steel, tool steels, and superalloys/ nickel alloys—for applications that demand high strength, wear resistance, heat resistance, and corrosion resistance properties.

The Metal X system is a powerful tool in the toolbox for designers, engineers, and technicians to address a broad range of both prototyping and production challenges. If you’re looking to 3D print industrial prototypes, tools, spare parts, or end-use parts, reach out to our team to help you evaluate if the Metal X is a fit for your organization’s manufacturing needs.

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