GM Moves to 3D Printing for Refined Part Designs

General Motors and Autodesk have recently collaborated to create new part designs that will become a reality through 3D printing. These new parts will serve every purpose and, more importantly, be lighter and stronger than traditionally manufactured parts. David Darovitz, GM’s global product development spokesperson, spoke about the seat bracket design in particular stating, “We developed a proof-of-concept seat bracket that transitions eight components into one using new generative design software from Autodesk. The concept part is about 40 percent lighter and 20 percent stronger than the bracket we use today.”

Smaller components such as seat brackets are not the only application for the 3D printing technology. The first recipients of the 3D printed parts will be on low-volume vehicles. But why would GM restrict this technology to low-volume vehicles instead of using it to differentiate themselves from their competition, especially those in Detroit? Darovitz explains that, with a part like the seat bracket, a cost analysis must be done from a total enterprise cost perspective.The new design will eliminate the shipping cost of sending the parts between suppliers, the capital cost of building stamping dyes for each of the stamped parts, and the welding costs. However, 3D printing costs are still high compared to those of traditional manufacturing method, which offsets the savings listed above.

Because each part is different, an individual business case analysis has to be made to determine whether or not the costs of 3D printing that part are lower than traditional manufacturing methods. “We may choose to invest more to 3D print a part if the added value in terms of performance merits the additional cost,” says Darovitz. “If a traditional manufacturing process is less expensive than 3D printing and there is not substantial performance benefit, then traditional manufacturing processes will be used.”

We see 3D printing on  more low production applications, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be seen in the high-volume vehicles that GM produces. “As the capabilities of 3D printing advances to print larger parts faster, the technology will be able to support higher-volume end-use production applications,” Darovitz added. “This will enable us to broaden our use of generative design for additive manufacturing across the GM portfolio to further lighten our vehicles.”

Even though the manufacture of vehicles using 3D printed parts is still a pipe dream, it is on the way, but there is no definite timeline. Darovitz states,”We are working on part designs now for future application, but not ready to share the specifics.”