3-D Printing Isn't Just Cheap Plastic

July 7, 2020

Parts that are made through 3-D printing are becoming stronger, more customizable and more widely used by OEs and aftermarket parts companies.

July 7, 2020—The advancement of 3-D printing technology for industrial use has greatly increased the effectiveness for automotive parts.

General Motors recently shared insight on its 3-D printing lab, which produced 75 percent of the part for the first prototype mid-engine Corvette.

“3-D 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, in the GM post. “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 ability to print Corvette test parts relatively quickly, which was a first at this scale for GM, led to quicker tests for right-hand drive configurations and retractable roof features, according to the post.

GM says that 3-D printing helped the company transition to mass production of ventilator parts and face masks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That effort included 17,000 face shields.

The headquarters of GM's 3-D printing effort is called the Additive Innovation Lab, which is a 4,000-square-foot facility at the Global Technical Center in Warren, Mich. Photos show large, fridge-like printers that do the work. The company says that more than 700 employees have been trained there.

“Most design work takes place in computer-aided design or computer-aided engineering these days, but there’s no substitute for having an actual part in hand to prove out your concept, be it a transmission component or a face shield visor,” Quinn said in the GM post.

Aftermarket potential

While the OE application is interesting, there's also aftermarket potential. One could envision custom or OE-spec parts being made up in a shop's printer, particularly in facilities that are far away from distributors or parts stores. Durability doesn't have to be sacrificed, either. These can be performance parts.

Recently, Papadakis Racing took its YouTube viewers into a factory that the company used to print a high-quality intake manifold for a 2020 Supra straight six engine that he made into a 1,000-horsepower monster.

The video shows the aluminum, which begins as powder, which starts by being laser-welded onto a base plate at a width of half a human hair strand. Layer by layer, the part was printed over 51 hours.

Luxury Trim

Luxury automakers have used 3-D printing to help add a few zeroes to the listing price of vehicles. Rolls-Royce 3-D printing a large piece of stainless steel that was plated in 50 grams of 24-carat gold for a custom Phantom.

The company claimed it was the largest piece of 3-D printed stainless steel to make it onto a production car.

Image: GM

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