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Daimler is investing big in automated 3D metal printing, and that's exciting

Finding a way to increase the efficiency of the metal 3D printing process means it can be used in lots of aspects of Daimler's business.

Daimler says its NextGenAM system is already working to make 3D printed metal parts like this diesel engine component from a bus more cheaply and quickly than previously possible.

It's no secret that 3D printing has begun to change the way we think about manufacturing things in small volumes, but it's relatively expensive and requires lots of human interaction to make sure it goes well. However, if Daimler, Premium Aerotec and EOS have their way, that could all change.

Additive manufacturing (another name for 3D printing) can be done with plastic, ceramics and even metals, and it's this last material that Daimler is interested in, the company said on its blog Wednesday.

Daimler estimates that the ability to manufacture medium-size runs of parts quickly and without the costs associated with making or buying tooling and without additional needed human workers could lead to cost savings of up to 50% over the current methods of manufacture.

The Daimler/Premium Aerotec/EOS NextGenAM system works with a conveyer belt and a series of manufacturing robots that handle everything from setup and transport of the powdered aluminum from which the part will be made to the actual printing area, to the lasers that heat the powder and form the layers from which the part is constructed. Of course, there is a human being monitoring the process from a central control area, but unless something goes wrong, the entire process is automated, including the heat treatment process, the company said.

"The NextGenAM project has provided a very tangible demonstration of how industrial 3D printing can be used cost-effectively in series production as part of an automated process chain," said EOS CEO Adrian Keppler said in a statement. "In combination with the possibilities for digitalization as used here, the pilot plant represents nothing less than a milestone along the way to digital manufacturing."

The NextGenAM system is in use now building spare parts for Daimler trucks and buses. The first part, a bracket for a diesel bus engine, is already being fitted to vehicles, but it's not just big, heavy, slow stuff that can benefit from this technology. It also means it's easier and cheaper to develop high-performance parts for limited-edition vehicles, so we could be seeing the NextGenAM system hard at work on bits for future AMG models.

Another area where this tech could prove to be extremely useful is with Mercedes-Benz' extremely robust parts catalog for its Mercedes Classic division. It will allow that division to make rare parts to order, rather than doing production runs and keeping the excess on a shelf for decades.

Other manufacturers have also embraced 3D printing. General Motors, for example, uses 3D printers to manufacture tooling for its factories and Ford will use 3D-printed parts in the new Shelby GT500.