General Motors typically relies on 3D printing to help launch new vehicles, such as the first-ever mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette. During the COVID-19 outbreak, the same technology played a critical role in helping the team transition from making vehicles to medical devices in a matter of days.
“3D printing helps us design and build parts and products faster and in ways we previously couldn’t,” said Kevin Quinn, GM director of additive design and manufacturing. “It’s already having a positive impact on how we develop and build vehicles, like Corvette, and it’s allowed us to apply our mass production expertise to medical supplies and devices.”
The first time a physical version of the mid-engine Corvette came together, 75 percent of the parts were 3D printed. No other GM "slow build" design and engineering evaluation has featured this amount or level of detail in terms of its 3D-printed components. This allowed the team to envision what a production vehicle would look like and how all the parts would fit together. They were also able to diagnose and correct issues early on, reducing development time.
3D printing was also used extensively to test and implement Corvette-first features like right-hand drive for international markets and the retractable hardtop.
GM’s expertise in additive manufacturing in turn enabled the company to quickly shift from its core automotive business to medical production.
“We could not have responded to the coronavirus as quickly as we did without 3D printing,” said Ron Daul, GM director of additive manufacturing. “The investment in both our additive manufacturing facilities and training the team to leverage 3D printing for development has enabled us to pivot to making ventilators and personal protective equipment virtually overnight.”
To produce medical supplies, the team applied additive manufacturing to three core areas: manufacturing, prototyping and production.
Nearly all tools used to assemble the ventilators that GM is manufacturing with its partner Ventec Life Systems and collaborator Hamilton Medical are 3D printed.
Most are 3D-printed “nests” or fixtures that hold parts in place during assembly at GM’s facility in Kokomo, Indiana as well as Hamilton Medical’s plant in Reno, Nevada. These nests are reverse engineered from part data received from Ventec in Seattle and Hamilton in Switzerland.
“3D printing allows us to make constant, rapid changes to fixtures based on feedback from the assembly teams,” said Dominick Lentine, GM senior manufacturing engineer, additive applications. “We can receive feedback from Hamilton, improve a part and have it flown back to Reno in less than 24 hours.”
To increase the speed of response even further, teams from GM’s Additive Innovation Lab and Additive Industrialization Center, both in Warren, Michigan, recently delivered and installed 3D printers from their respective facilities to the Kokomo plant to print new hand tools onsite.
GM has been using additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping since 1989. The role 3D printing played in the development of the mid-engine Corvette will only accelerate with each new model the company introduces.
This institutional knowledge of 3D printing allowed GM to quickly build and assess different designs of assembly tools mentioned above. It also helped the company develop and produce face shields for first responders.