An engineer inspects a 3-D printer. Photo courtesy of General Motors Co. 

December 15, 2020: Grace Turner, DBusiness

Detroit’s General Motors Co. has opened a 15,000-square-foot Additive Industrialization Center at the GM Tech Center in Warren. The facility will be dedicated exclusively to rapidly integrating 3-D printing technology in the automotive industry.

“The core component of GM’s transformation is becoming a more agile, innovative company, and 3-D printing will play a critical role in that mission,” says Audley Brown, director of additive design and materials engineering. “Compared to traditional processes, 3-D printing can produce parts in a matter of days versus weeks or months at a significantly lower cost.”

The facility includes 24 3-D printers that create polymer and metal solutions. The additive design and manufacturing team uses a number of processes, including selective laser sintering, selective laser melting, multi-jet fusion, and fused deposition modeling.

GM Ventures and GM R&D are partners in the facility, which is intended to validate additive technologies and applications, with frequent pivots to evolving additive machinery and equipment.

Earlier this year, GM used 3-D printing to make medical devices in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company also uses 3-D printed parts in motorsports competitions.

“GM is increasingly applying the benefits of 3-D printing, from prototype development to manufacturing tooling and production vehicles,” says Ron Daul, director of additive manufacturing and polymer centers at GM. “With the opening of the AIC, we’ll continue to accelerate adoption of this technology across the organization.”

The company has used 3-D printed rapid prototypes to check form and fit. Today, many parts the facility produces are functional prototypes used on pre-production vehicles in testing environments. Early integration vehicles and test benches are often equipped with 3-D printed parts that can undergo the same testing as a conventionally tooled part.

Using 3-D printed prototypes can help eliminate early tooling costs, allowing engineers to iterate quickly, make design changes, and reduce development times. The team 3-D printed the brake cooling ducts used for the development of the Chevrolet Corvette. The ducts saved nine weeks of development and reduced costs by more than 60 percent in the process.

“Many recent product programs have benefitted from 3-D printed prototype parts in one way or another,” Brown says. “Not only can these parts save time and money, but the team also uses 3-D printed applications during product development to overcome unexpected challenges in real time.”

GM also is producing 3-D printed tools used for assembling vehicles. Manufacturing tooling comes in many shapes and forms such as hand-apply tools, automation components, and rapid-response solutions for production site launches.

3-D printing often enables the team to consolidate the components of a part into a single, optimized design. The resulting tools are lighter, more ergonomic, and less complex.

For the launch of GM’s SUVs, the team 3-D printed nearly 100 hand tools to use in the body shop at Arlington Assembly. Typically, the tools would be made of aluminum, weighing from 10-40 pounds. The new designs, constructed with a nylon carbon fiber composite, weigh as little as three pounds and virtually eliminated the lead time for ordering part changes.

“3-D printing the body shop tools at Arlington saved more than two months in tooling construction,” Daul says. “This is at the critical time when we are changing the plant over to launch the new models. Ultimately, 3-D printing helps accelerate new vehicle launches like our full-size SUVs.”

Cadillac recently announced the CT4-V Blackwing and CT5-V Blackwing will be the first GM production vehicles to have 3-D printed parts, including an emblem on the manual shifter knob, an electrical harness bracket, and two HVAC ducts.

The team was also able to reduce costs and increase efficiency when developing the sedans’ manual transmission.

“The parts printed for the Cadillac V-Series models exemplify how we can use additive applications in the right place on the right program,” Brown says. “And this is just the beginning. Ultimately, we see the potential for 3-D printed parts to be used in a wide variety of production applications, from greater personalization options for new-vehicle buyers, to unique accessories and reproductions of classic car parts.”