Not that long ago it seems, 3D printing seems like a weird, fringe gimmick, something that neckbeards did in their garage to make parts for their Battlebots. But the truth is that it has completely changed the way manufacturing works in small scale. Even huge multinational companies like General Motors have seen this and are taking advantage.
Rather than using 3D printing to make parts for cars, something that at GM's scale would be wildly expensive and inefficient, it is using the technology to produce tooling and fixtures for a number of its factories, but in particular its Lansing Delta Plant.
According to Automotive News, GM's 3D printer at Delta Lansing cost it approximately $35,000, but it has already saved the company more than $300,000 in tooling costs. As an example, the factory uses a special fixture to align VIN plates on vehicles. To buy this from a third party would cost the company upward of $3,000, but to print one in-house costs around $3.
It's these kinds of highly specific and low-volume pieces that 3D printing is perfect for, and when you couple that with the ability to have the person making the tools on-site be a part of the problem-solving process, you begin to see enormous benefits in terms of efficiency.
The Delta Lansing plant uses a number of processes that are part of what GM is calling "Manufacturing 4.0", which also includes things like using drones to inspect various assembly stations quickly, and "collaborative robots" that are able to work with humans and don't need to be confined to safety cages to prevent injury.
While technology like 3D printing is still too slow and expensive to use in large scale, it may not be that long before that changes, allowing factories to become less dependent on outside suppliers, or allowing dealerships to print their own replacement parts, and that would be pretty cool.
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