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3-D printing helped GM make products for 'arsenal of health'

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — General Motors Co.'s 3-D printing capabilities have come in handy in the last few months as the Detroit automaker jumped to make products in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

During the outbreak, the same technology used in helping to make GM vehicles come to life played a critical role in helping to transition teams to build medical devices and equipment in days instead of weeks.

GM 3-D printed parts for more than 17,000 face shields that were donated to hospitals and first responders.

"We didn't have the luxury of time to wait, so oftentimes production of these assembly aides and tools to really support your manufacturing process can take weeks if not months in some cases to produce," said Kevin Quinn, GM director of additive design and manufacturing. "Obviously, that would have missed the boat. We wouldn't have been able to really help the front-line workers"

GM partnered with Seattle-based Ventec Life Systems to manufacture ventilators out of its Kokomo, Indiana plant.

Most of the tools used to assemble the ventilators that GM is manufacturing with Ventec and collaborator Hamilton Medical are 3-D printed. GM 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. Printers were recently installed at the Kokomo plant to print new hand tools onsite.

GM used 3-D printers usually utilized for auto production to transition to medical devices.

The automaker also started up a face mask and face shield production facility at its closed Warren Transmission plant. To accelerate production of masks, GM printed fixtures and tools. 

"We were able to very quickly use our capability here, to pivot from what we use on automotive tools ... and apply to it to medical devices," said Ron Daul, GM director of additive manufacturing.

For face shields, GM printed headbands for more than 17,000 face shields before an injection mold was developed for mass production of the shields. Just waiting for the injection mold would have taken four to five weeks.

GM has used additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping since 1989. 

Before the pandemic, GM was using additive for production of the new mid-engine Chevrolet Corvette. When the first physical version of the Corvette came together, 75% of the parts were printed. 

GM’s recently created two facilities for 3-D printing technology in Warren. The Additive Innovation Lab, which opened last year, is a 4,000-square-foot facility in the Cole Engineering Center inside GM’s Global Technical Center in Warren. The Additive Industrialization Center, will begin official operations in late 2020 onsite at GM’s Global Technical Center.

"There's a huge commitment from GM's standpoint," Quinn said. "We want to lead. We want to win in this space and I think we are well on the way to do that."

khall@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bykaleahall