Last April – in the midst of the first leg COVID-19 outbreak in the US, General Motors was tasked with building 30,000 COVID-19 ventilators for the national stockpile for a total of $489.4 million, the first contract under the Defense Production Act invoked by the US President Donal Trump.
The Detroit automaker is not going to profit from this deal but they are expected to deliver the ventilators to the government by the end of August. With the first 6,132 ventilators being delivered by June 1. How? If COVID-19 has taught us anything it is that 3D printing can help to make key parts and rapidly shift production lines in such an emergency situation and that’s exactly what happened at GM.
“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.”
Manufacturing COVID-19 ventilators
To produce medical supplies, the team applied additive manufacturing to three core areas: manufacturing, prototyping and production. Like many other companies during this emergency, GM also produced thousands of face shields and other PPE equipment, either by 3D printing it directly or by rapidly prototyping the molds for it. However, manufacturing the ventilators took another level of expertise.
Nearly all tools used to assemble the COVID-19 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.
Racing into production
During “peacetime”, General Motors typically relies on 3D printing to help launch new vehicles, such as the first-ever mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette. “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 the right-hand drive for international markets and the retractable hardtop.
Expanding 3D printing
GM’s extensive use of 3D printing for medical equipment was enabled by recent investments in additive manufacturing, including two all-new facilities in Warren.
The Additive Innovation Lab, which opened last year, is a 4,000-square-foot facility in the heart of the Cole Engineering Center, inside GM’s Global Technical Center in Warren. Easily accessible to tens of thousands of employees, GM’s engineers, designers and other team members can learn how to operate the 3D printers and software, convert files into physical parts and then process these parts. To date, more than 700 employees have been trained by the facility’s combined salaried and hourly workforce.
“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,” said Quinn.
3D printing is used at GM to rapidly create physical parts, test the fit or function of parts ahead of production, save time in the overall development process and provide massive savings on tooling costs.
The ability to rapidly check the viability of different versions of the same part – multiple iterations of one design can be printed on a single build – also saves considerable time during the development phase. With 3D printing engineers at the Additive Innovation Lab are able to gauge early in the development process how well a single part interacts with its surrounding environment and also check the tactile feel of different materials and forms.
A second greenfield facility, the Additive Industrialization Center, will begin official operations in late 2020 onsite at GM’s Global Technical Center. The stand-alone facility will further expand GM’s expertise and capability in 3D printing and additive manufacturing. More details about the facility will be released later this year.