This additive technology can save loads of time and money while improving quality.
Craig ColeFormer reviews editor
Craig brought 15 years of automotive journalism experience to the Cars team. A lifelong resident of Michigan, he's as happy with a wrench or welding gun in hand as he is in front of the camera or behind a keyboard. When not hosting videos or cranking out features and reviews, he's probably out in the garage working on one of his project cars. He's fully restored a 1936 Ford V8 sedan and then turned to resurrecting another flathead-powered relic, a '51 Ford Crestliner. Craig has been a proud member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).
On Monday, GM announced the opening of its new 15,000-square-foot Additive Industrialization Center at the Warren Tech Center in suburban Detroit. This facility is dedicated to pushing 3D printing forward in the automotive industry.
One goal of the AIC is to "productionize" this technology, to make it a cornerstone of GM vehicle development and manufacturing. In the future, 3D printing promises to revolutionize the car-making process, and it's already dramatically accelerating development times, reducing costs and even improving quality.
A new-from-the-ground-up facility, the AIC is the result of investments GM has made over the last several years, though no one is willing to comment on how much they've shelled out. Currently, it's home to 24
, which can make components out of both polymers and metal. The AIC can carry out a number of different processes, from selective laser sintering and selective laser melting to Multi-Jet Fusion and fused deposition modeling.
But why even bother with 3D printing on an industrial scale? Isn't that just what tech-savvy computer folks do as a hobby to make small plastic tchotchkes? Well, yes, but also no, not at all. There are huge benefits to using this technology in the automotive space. For starters, it can dramatically accelerate the pace at which prototype parts are created. Rather than fabricating components by hand or manufacturing separate tooling to produce a particular part that may change as vehicle development progresses, you can quickly 3D-print one to see how it fits and functions, something that can take as little as a day, compared with weeks or even months using conventional means. If the part doesn't work as intended, you haven't invested any time or money in expensive manufacturing tooling.
Beyond that, 3D printing can help engineers optimize vehicle components. A perfect example of this is the aluminum oil tank and inlet assembly on the Chevrolet Corvette C8.R race car. The 3D-printed version is a unified part, replacing eight individual components. This eliminates 14 welds, but not only that, it also weighs 32% less, and in racing, every gram counts.
GM has also 3D-printed nearly 100 hand tools for use at its Arlington, Texas, assembly plant, home to its full-size SUVs including the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade. These tools, which are used in the body shop, typically weigh between 10 and 40 pounds, but the 3D-printed versions are made of a nylon carbon-fiber composite and clock in at as little as 3 pounds.
Of course, there are many more uses for 3D printing in the automotive industry. GM is also using it on certain robots that load the roof onto the Chevrolet Bolt electric car and the company's used the technology to create the plastic Z-blockers that are an integral part of the new Hummer EV's battery pack, making it possible to build prototype vehicles much faster.
In addition to producing prototype components, the AIC will also collaborate with universities, materials suppliers and other organizations involved with 3D printing to help push the technology forward. The folks at GM say they want 3D printing to be mainstream, a key part of the company's product-development process. And with the opening of the new facility, that goal is likely one step closer to reality.
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