The first thing that hits you, the signal that this drab Michigan office building is a bit cooler than the average, 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 a 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 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 engine 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 last five years. “We’re seeing them start to move into part production in limited ways, primarily at lower volumes.”
In May, GM unveiled its a bid to shoehorn more printing into carmaking. The result is—wait for it—a stainless steel seat bracket. A very, very weird looking seat bracket. Not that any car owners will ever see it.
Generally, building this sort of bracket, which provides a steely, firm base for a car’s seats and seat belt buckles, requires about eight separate parts, purchased from several different automotive suppliers. This new, bizarre one is one continuous component, with each curving tendril serving a specific stabilizing purpose. As a result, it’s 40 percent lighter and 20 percent stronger than the standard, GM says. For automakers who like to entice consumers with promises of faster vehicles with higher gas mileage, this kind of incremental lightweighting is a path to market domination.
GM created the seat bracket as a demo project in partnership with Autodesk, the San Francisco design and engineering software firm, which has an engineer constantly embedded with the carmaker’s design team in Michigan. Autodesk’s tech helps the GM designers input parameters—materials, need-to-have elements like holes for screws, cost, object stiffness, mass—to come up with inventive new ways to put parts together. The result is something Salvador Dalí might have dreamed up. Print it off in steel, et voila: a new approach to keeping everybody buckled in.
Now, these sorts of seat brackets won’t make it into production cars just yet. The cost of additive manufacturing has come way down in the past few decades, but it’s not yet cheap enough for mass manufacturing. Printing is still too slow for a company that makes more than 8,000 vehicles a day. And integrating the process into the production line is no easy thing. “It’s not about just buying a 3-D printer, says Cotteleer. “For industrial-scale printing, there needs to be a whole digital backbone to send files to where they need to be. And what’s that model going to be?”
Stil, GM sees great promise in things like wacky seat brackets. “There are 30,000 parts and pieces on each of our vehicles,” says Kevin Quinn, the automaker’s director of additive design and manufacturing. “A realistic change is maybe 100 or 1,000 pieces have a chance to be printed. Five years from now, could that number raise to 5,000? Ten years from now, to 10,000?” The result might be a prettier, more material-efficient, lighter, faster car.
In the meantime, GM says it will also use additive manufacturing to create unique tools used during automotive production, or to customize slick decorative elements for one-off buyers. (Monogrammed grilles, anyone?)
Of course, don’t expect entire cars to be printed anytime soon. “This is not a panacea,” says Cotteleer, explaining that a completely 3-D printed car would make no financial sense. But it’s nothing for carmakers to turn their nose up at, either.