General Motors Co. in Detroit has been steadily boosting its investments in 3-D printing over the last two years in a bid to speed parts production, retooling, and safety.
The automaker added 17 production-grade Stratasys FDM 3-D printers to its fleet at the end of 2019, and has been increasing the use of 3-D printed tooling for speed, weight reduction, and cost efficiency on its production lines.
“With the pace of change in modern industry accelerating and business uncertainty increasing, 3-D printing technology is helping us meet these challenges and become more nimble as a company,” says Ron Daul, GM’s director of additive manufacturing.
“We’ve been on this journey for more than 30 years, but 3-D printing is becoming even more widespread at our company with more than 700 employees now trained to use the technology. Additive manufacturing is consistently providing us more rapid and efficient product development, tooling, and assembly aids, with even more benefits to come.”
An April 2020 study by SME Media found that 25 percent of U.S. manufacturing professionals were planning to change their supply chains in response to the pandemic, and 3-D printing was the top choice (with robotics) of 11 manufacturing technologies for post-COVID investment.
The technology can be used to 3-D print spare parts, produce end-use parts closer to assembly, help manufacturing lines retool faster, and develop new and better prototypes more quickly.
GM has used 3-D printing since 1989 for prototyping. In total, 75 percent of the parts in the prototype of its 2020 Chevrolet Corvette were 3-D-printed, and GM now has 3-D printers installed in numerous production facilities — increasingly moving beyond prototyping to production-related applications like tooling.
The 3-D systems were front and center in April when GM entered into contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to deliver a 30,000-unit order for critical care ventilators, in conjunction with Ventec Life Systems, by the end of August.
The company reverse-engineered part data for tooling fixtures from the original ventilator manufacturer, and started 3-D printing them the next day. All 3-D printed tooling used for critical care ventilators was 3-D printed on Stratasys systems.
When the company requires more 3-D printing capacity, there is an automatic offload path to Stratasys Direct Manufacturing for parts on demand. This helps GM run at a high utilization rate for its existing machines, expanding in-house capacity when it can ensure it has a sustained need for it.
Material innovation and machine repeatability have made a difference. For example, Nylon12 Carbon Fiber is a composite material containing 35 percent chopped carbon fiber by weight, which translates to an exceptionally high strength-to-weight ratio, even in places subjected to heavy vibrations.
As a result, heavy parts that would have previously required metal can now be 3-D printed in polymers. And production-grade systems like the Stratasys F900 have been designed to perform to a high degree of precision while providing consistency so every part is as identical as possible.
“GM is making the smart investments in 3-D printing to succeed in this new normal of uncertainty and disruption,” says Rich Garrity, Stratasys Americas President. “As a result, GM has manufacturing lines that are more adaptable and less expensive, and products that are developed faster and better. They are a clear model for the future of additive manufacturing in the automotive industry.”