General Motors Co. has used 3D printing since 1989 to help build prototypes faster, but the technology wasn't ready to go much beyond that. Now, GM is 3D printing tools for medical device production and says it soon will start printing parts for production vehicles.
"Hopefully over the next year or so, we will have production parts on our vehicles," said Kevin Quinn, GM's director of additive design and manufacturing. "We've really come a long way from really strictly using it for a prototype."
GM has reached the point where it uses 3D printing to make the majority of parts for some prototypes, such as the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette. Its Additive Innovation Lab, opened last year on the campus of its Warren, Mich., tech center, has trained more than 700 employees so far. A nearby facility, called the Additive Industrialization Center, will be operational later this year.
"We're really excited about the future opportunities and how this technology can grow and really help us be more efficient, effective and really leading in using this technology going forward," Quinn said.
Three-quarters of the parts on the first physical version of the midengine Corvette, shown in 2019, were 3D printed, GM said. The additive manufacturing team invited the Corvette assembly team to Warren, as it does with most vehicles, for the slow build process, when the assembly team puts all the parts together and evaluates ergonomics and clearance for assembly.
With 3D printing as a part of the slow build process, the team can adapt on the fly, Quinn said. Workers print enhanced versions of parts to solve issues in real time.
No previous slow build model had so many 3D printed components, GM said. The technology allowed the design and engineering teams to diagnose and correct many issues before production. GM also used 3D printing to test and implement features such as the retractable hardtop and right-hand drive for international markets.
The evaluations were "obviously very critical because this is the first midengine Corvette we've ever built," Quinn said. "Not to say that the other vehicles are easy, but this one is a little more challenging because it was a first for us."
After receiving a call from ventilator manufacturer Ventec Life Systems in March as the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., GM quickly put plans into place to help build lifesaving ventilators that hospitals were running short on. In April, President Donald Trump's administration announced a $490 million contract with GM to deliver 30,000 ventilators — more than double the number now in the Strategic National Stockpile — by August.
Within 24 hours of the March call, the additive manufacturing team knew it could help, Ron Daul, GM's director of additive manufacturing, said.
The team had 3D printers going around-the-clock to help make face masks and shields, along with fixtures that hold parts in place while workers build ventilators at a GM plant in Indiana and Hamilton Medical's plant in Nevada. The fixtures were reverse engineered from part data received from Ventec and Hamilton, and the printers were up and running the next day.
"It's fast data," Daul said. "That's one of the great things about the process, is it's very flexible."
Many of the items GM printed used the same materials as automotive parts.
"We didn't have to create new materials. We were able to iterate and prototype very quickly," Daul said. "We were doing three, four, five iterations to really tune it in and make sure we had the right design. The nests that you put the fabric in to manufacture a face mask, those were printed in our lab, for example."