GM’s Use of 3-D Printing Predicts Cheaper, Better Cars

General Motors says this seat bracket, dreamed up during a collaboration with the engineering and design software company Autodesk, is 40 percent lighter and 20 percent stronger than its conventional brackets. GENERAL MOTORS

THE FIRST THING that hits you, the signal that this drab Michigan office building is a bit cooler than an average office building, is the smell. The acrid, metallic, plasticky, burning smell, the sort of odor that prompts the question: Is something that is really not supposed to be on fire on fire in here?

No, no, says Dave Bolognino, who heads up General Motors’ design fabrication division. That’s just the byproduct of 3-D printing. In changing auto industry, this is what innovation (“rapid iteration” in business speak) smells like. And that smell might be wafting to other parts of the company.

About 30,000 prototype parts get printed each year here at the Warren Tech Center, the sprawling, suburban home to many of the carmaker’s research and development efforts, which hosts over 20,000 GM employees. These parts are fabricated out of at least nine sorts of materials—combinations of plastics and metal and powders—and are used, mostly, for rapid prototyping, for those who want to quickly visualize or understand what a new sort of auto part or configuration would look like. That’s nothing new: GM has been 3D-printing prototypes for three decades, starting under the eye of Bolognino’s father, John, now retired in his late 70s.

Today, specially trained workers run the printing machines six days a week, three shifts a day, a constant churn of popping parts out of molds and watching conglomerates emerge from powders and liquid resins. There’s no real limit to what employees can dream up and print out, says Bolognino, standing in front of a series of shelves filled with grayish mini-bumpers, wheels, and unidentifiable plastic squares cooling just off the printing machines. Though there is a limit on what they will print. A design team once asked for a plastic Coke bottle, to use in a model cup holder. “Here’s a dollar fifty,” Bolognino told them. “Go buy one.”

3-D printing, aka additive manufacturing, ain’t new at all, but you’ll see it now in more consumer products than ever before. Folks making shoes, dental implants, hearing aids, and even jet engines use printed parts. The Obama administration helped launch the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute back in 2012, a $70 million consortium of businesses and universities dedicated to coming up with new ways to use additive manufacturing to boost American business. The process allows these industries to craft oddly shaped parts more quickly and with more flexibility than they did in the past.

And outside GM’s malodorous workshop, 3-D printing is poised to become an even more vital part of the automotive manufacturing process. Carmakers like the Detroit giant are thinking about ways they can fold the process into actual production vehicles, the kind real people drive around every day.

“The auto industry has been leading in the use of additive manufacturing for 30 years in the prototyping space,” says Mark Cotteleer, who heads up the consulting firm Deloitte’s Center for Integrated Research and has studied additive manufacturing for the past five years. “We’re seeing them start to move into part production in limited ways, primarily at lower volumes.”

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