Innovation: Community & Education

3D Printing Supports GM’s Global Team and Vehicles

Tue, Jan 28 2014

Create a custom part on the computer screen, press print and then presto – the part is produced to the exact design specifications listed. The wonders of 3D printing.

GM Design has been using 3D rapid prototype technology for more than two decades. The technology has advanced significantly over the years from a paper and glue process to today’s high-speed lasers, sophisticated software and broad range of raw materials. Today GM is a leader and innovator in North America and suppliers view the organization as a beta tester for the latest equipment and software.

An elite team of 15 technicians is in place at the Rapid Prototype Laboratory at GM Design who generate over 20,000 parts supporting GM’s global footprint each year.

Digital designs for just about any part on a car or truck are directly transferred to the technicians in the Rapid Prototype Lab who then generate 3D printed parts in hours without the need for dedicated tooling.  Practically the only limitation beyond the imagination of the designer or engineer is the physical size of the machines.

GM Design uses two different processes for producing rapid prototype parts. Both processes build parts in layers from mathematical data. Each offer characteristics the technician considers for the type of part made and its final application. Selective laser sintering (SLS) uses a laser to scan a pattern of powered plastic material and fuses it together. The unused powder supports each part(s) during fabrication and then brushed off. Stereo lithography apparatus (SLA) uses a liquid resin that the lasers cure into a solid as they scan. Because the resin will not support the parts being formed, a custom lattice structure is added to the bottom of the vat. When the parts are complete, the technician snaps off the lattice support by hand.

This technology was used on the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu, where rapid prototyping was especially useful when crafting the new floor console complete with integrated smartphone holders for driver and passengers.

Other examples can be seen across the company:

  • GM Engineers use it to reduce tooling costs and understand designs prior to final release for a variety of parts or systems – including drive shafts, cooling and exhaust systems and fuel lines.
  • Manufacturing uses the technology to streamline their processes in the plant for early builds.
  • GM Designers use it for quick iteration of exterior and interior parts, component assemblies.  They go from art to part in a fraction of the time and expense of other fabrication methods (clay, cut, and/or cast using molds). It’s also a great resource when multiple studio teams are working on the same vehicle and/or architecture.
  • GM Aerodynamicists – the technology speeds solutions that increase fuel economy and reduce drag – and quick iteration for scale and full size model testing.  Key components that impact air flow like side mirrors, rocker and rear quarter panels, and front fascias can be quickly changed and tested.

As the technology and equipment has improved in quality and production volume demand from the GM design, engineering and aero community has increased, the Rapid Prototype Lab serves GM operations around the world.  GM designers and engineers submit an online request to the Lab where technicians manage the math data, load it onto the appropriate machine, cure the part, post process the part, and then ship it out within a few days’ time.

This technology allows very quick iteration of parts with no tooling right from math and facilitates exponential gains in creativity, flexibility, speed and accuracy with dramatic efficiency.

The return on investment can be very attractive. It reduces product development time and gives each end user more options. Moreover, the reduction in tooling cost, tooling change costs and piece cost is attractive for the right type of parts.

3D printing is one of several technologies keeping GM at the forefront of innovation in the automotive industry and the Rapid Prototype Laboratory is helping to pave the way.

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