Reuters, one the leading news agencies in the world, is reporting that General Motors is working with Autodesk to manufacture new, lightweight 3D printed parts that could help the automaker meet its goals to add alternative-fuel vehicles to its product lineup.
Surprisingly the issue of vehicle light-weighting practices through AM and their ideal combination with electric mobility – in order to improve efficiency and range – had not been covered extensively in the auto industry, nor in the AM industry, up to today. The fact that a manufacturer of mass-produced cars like GM is raising industry and general awareness around this topic shows that this could be a gamechanger for the EV and alternative fuel mobility industry.
With consumer concerns over the limited range of electric vehicles a major obstacle to their mass adoption, making them lighter improves fuel efficiency and could help extend that range. Reuters reports that GM executives showed off a 3D printed stainless steel seat bracket developed with Autodesk technology – which uses cloud computing and artificial intelligence-based algorithms to rapidly explore multiple permutations of a part design.
Using conventional technology, the part would require eight components and several suppliers. With this new system, the seat bracket consists of one part – which looks like a mix between abstract art and science fiction movie – that is 40 percent lighter and 20 percent stronger.
Other manufacturers such as General Electric have also beefed up their use of 3D printers in manufacturing. GM rival automaker Ford Motor last year began working with Stratasys on composite AM and recently it began testing new lightweight 3D printing technologies for mass production using composites.
Generative design is a design exploration technology that uses AI-based algorithms to simultaneously generate multiple valid solutions based on real-word manufacturing constraints and product performance requirements, such as strength, weight, materials and more. Engineers can explore and choose from far more manufacturing-ready design options, far more rapidly than was ever conceivable before. They are freed from repetitive design tasks so they can focus on higher-value decisions like maximizing part performance.
“This disruptive technology provides tremendous advancements in how we can design and develop components for our future vehicles to make them lighter and more efficient, said GM Vice President Ken Kelzer, Global Vehicle Components and Subsystems. “When we pair the design technology with manufacturing advancements such as 3D printing, our approach to vehicle development is completely transformed and is fundamentally different to co-create with the computer in ways we simply couldn’t have imagined before.”
In an initial proof-of-concept project, GM and Autodesk engineers working together at GM’s Tech Center in Warren, Michigan used generative design to reconceive a small, but important vehicle component – the seat bracket where seat belts are fastened. The software produced more than 150 valid design options based on parameters the engineers set, such as required connection points, strength and mass. They zeroed in on a new design, whose organic structure no human could have conceived on their own. It is 40 percent lighter and 20 percent stronger than the original part.
It also demonstrates another major benefit of generative design – part consolidation. The new part consolidates eight different components into one 3D-printed part.
GM has used 3D printers for prototyping for years, but Kevin Quinn, the automaker’s director of additive design and manufacturing, said within a year or so GM expects these new 3D printed parts to appear in high-end, motorsports applications. Within five years, GM hopes to produce thousands or tens of thousands of parts at scale as the technology improves, Quinn said.
In the long run, Quinn said the 3D printed parts would help reduce tooling costs, cut the amount of material used, the number of suppliers needed for one part and logistics costs. The 3D printing based manufacturing industry is working toward mass production and trying to address issues with “repeatability and robustness,” said Bob Yancey, Autodesk’s director of manufacturing. GM getting into the game “will put tremendous pressure” to make that happen, Yancey said.