Manufacturing AUTOMATION

GM uses 3D printing to optimize production tooling during COVID-19

August 5, 2020
By Manufacturing AUTOMATION

GM's additive manufacturing team members working at the still-under-construction Additive Innovation Center. Photo: by Jeffrey Sauger for General Motors/Business Wire

General Motors has added 17 production-grade 3D printers over the past several months to make tooling that will help optimize speed, weight reduction and cost efficiency on its production lines.

At the end of 2019, the automaker started adding Stratasys FDM 3D printers to its fleet, which have since helped to manufacture ventilators and personal protective equipment used in the fight against COVID-19.

“With the pace of change in modern industry accelerating and business uncertainty increasing, 3D printing technology is helping us meet these challenges and become more nimble as a company,” says Ron Daul, GM’s director of additive manufacturing, in a release.

“We’ve been on this journey for more than 30 years, but 3D 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.”

Workers build production ventilators for General Motors with 3D-printed tooling. Photo: AJ Mast for General Motors/Business Wire

An April 2020 study by SME Media found that 25 per cent of U.S. manufacturing professionals were planning to change their supply chains in response to the pandemic, and 3D printing was the top choice (along with robotics) of 11 manufacturing technologies for post-COVID investment.

The technology can be used to 3D print spare parts, produce end-use parts closer to assembly, help manufacturing lines retool faster, and develop new and better prototypes more quickly.

GM is moving quickly to gain competitive advantage. The company has used 3D printing since 1989 for prototyping. Seventy-five per cent of the parts in the prototype of its 2020 Chevrolet Corvette were 3D printed, and GM now has 3D printers installed in many production facilities around the world.

The company is increasingly moving beyond prototyping to production-related applications such as tooling.

A big test of this application came 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 3D printing them the next day. All tooling used for critical care ventilators was 3D printed on the Stratasys systems.

When the company requires more 3D 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, nylon 12 carbon fibre is a composite material containing 35 per cent chopped carbon fibre 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 3D printed in polymers. Production-grade systems have been designed to not only perform to a high degree of precision, but also consistency so that every part is as identical as possible.

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