Toyota R&D Ups Its Additive Manufacturing Game

A recent peek inside Toyota’s Michigan R&D center reveals expanding applications for additive-manufacturing (AM) technology.

TMNA engineers are seeking higher processing speeds and higher-quality, lower-cost materials for AM processes. (TMNA R&D)

Toyota Motor North America Research & Development (TMNA R&D) in York Township, Michigan, is Toyota’s largest R&D center outside of Japan. The team there performs engineering design and prototype building, vehicle testing and evaluation, technical research, and more. Vehicles like the new 2021 Sienna minivan and the current generation Tundra pickup were developed at the center.

Not surprisingly, the TMNA team relies on additive manufacturing (AM) – the term that Toyota uses on a global level – for many of its activities. On the R&D level, however, TMNA staff also use “rapid prototyping” (RP) and “3D printing” interchangeably. The facility is outfitted with equipment from 3D Systems, EOS, Stratasys and Carbon 3D.

The additive processes performed at the center include:

  • Fused deposition modeling (FDM)
  • Selective laser sintering (SLS)
  • Stereolithography (SLA)
  • Multi-jet modeling (MJM)
  • Digital light processing (DLP)

Prototype builds – scale models and full-size mock-ups for proof-of-concept – are a primary focus at TMNA. Some prototypes are used for appearance confirmation, some for functional checks and still others for workability studies. The models are used to support both traditional vehicle development projects as well as new mobility and advanced development initiatives that Toyota is undertaking.

Another focus of TMNA R&D is tooling builds. An example: process jigs that are used to ensure that the vehicles’ exterior emblems are correctly assembled during pre-production trials at the facility. The jigs are then used in production operations at Toyota North America’s facilities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Toyota is not yet using AM to manufacture production parts (at right, Toyota engineer Matt Mahaffy is cleaning and inspecting prototype parts). The company is currently investigating and developing the means by which it could produce production parts. “At Toyota we have high standards for part performance and quality that we must consider first and foremost,” explained a Toyota R&D spokesperson. The organization is finding significant value in AM for eliminating long tooling lead times needed to produce parts early in the development cycle. It also helps address the related tooling costs associated with early builds.

Major challenges in AM applications being addressed at TMNA include matching the properties of the materials currently being used in production operations; being able to scale up additive output to support high-volume production needs; and faster processing speeds. Engineers also are seeking higher quality, lower-cost materials for use in the AM processes, the spokesperson noted.

The driver behind Toyota’s increasing use of AM was asserted by Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motors and grandson of the company’s founder, in his 2018 CES speech. “It’s my goal to transition Toyota from an automobile company to a mobility company,” he stated, emphasizing his determination “to create new ways to move and connect our customers across the country, across town, or just across the room.” To that end, TMNA R&D is working on advanced mobility solutions – products that are well beyond Camrys and RAV4s. The developers there say that AM capabilities are an important tool in advanced-mobility vehicle development.