There are over 30,000 parts in your average car–and creating all these pieces, then putting them together requires an incredibly complex supply chain and manufacturing capabilities.
But General Motors and the San Francisco-based software company Autodesk have a plan to upend how cars are designed, reducing the number of car parts that go into each car, while making cars both lighter and stronger. How? Using a tool that Autodesk calls “generative design,” where engineers can put the parameters required for a particular car part into the company’s program, and an algorithm devises and tests every possible form that part could take.
Autodesk has previously applied generative design to airplane seats, and now GM is using it to rethink car parts. The company’s co-CEO Marry Barra promised earlier this year that GM would be making money off electric vehicles by 2021. GM has also announced that it will have at least 20 electric or fuel cell vehicle models on the market by 2023. Generative design has the ability to reduce the weight of parts and create combo parts that can be manufactured using 3D printing, which could provide the kinds of cost cutting that might help the company reach these goals–something no other car manufacturer has achieved. It’s a big bet on the future of automobiles being electric, and using smarter design practices to get there.
Car Manufacturing Today
Today, car parts are manufactured using giant industrial tools like mills and injection molds. Because these tools are so costly to purchase and integrate into a production process, there’s little business incentive for car companies to try new modes of manufacturing. 3D printing on the other hand, requires just one piece of equipment to make many different types of parts with intricate structures that traditional tools previously couldn’t handle.
An Organic Seat Belt Bracket
The Detroit-based car giant is starting with an unglamorous part that most of us probably don’t think about: the seat belt bracket, which secures the seat belt fastener to the seat. After engineers entered in specific parameters, like where the bracket has to attach to the seat, the generative design algorithm spit out 150 different possible solutions that look utterly unlike any bracket you can imagine. Sinuous and curvy, the generated designs look organic, almost like the intricate branches of a tree. “It looks very different from what I expected a seat belt bracket to look like,” says Scott Reese, who heads up Autodesks’s manufacturing, construction, and production products.
The resulting brackets are in sharp contrast to the bulky brackets you’d typically find in GM cars. “Why are things boxy? That’s the manufacturing capability we had,” Reese says. “When you feed the computer the problem, it doesn’t care about things that were historical constraints humans had. The best answer often mimics the things you see in nature. And now our manufacturing capabilities are catching up.”
Of the 150 possibilities, the design GM decided to use is 40% lighter in weight and 20% stronger than the previous version. This kind of weight reduction, applied more broadly to a vehicle, could result in greater fuel efficiency for gas cars and longer range for electric ones.
All-In-One 3D Printing
From GM’s business perspective, the most important aspect of the new part is that it combines eight components into a single one that can be 3D-printed. That means you can eliminate the cost, both economic and environmental, of shipping parts from eight different suppliers. You can eliminate the cost of welding or bolting each piece together. You no longer require all the tools needed to create all the different pieces–just a 3D printer–nor would you need all the employees who currently work at various points along this process.
The company’s engineers are now evaluating which of the thousands of car parts should undergo the process next. According to Kevin Quinn, director of additive design and manufacturing at GM, it probably won’t be a tremendous number of parts because 3D printers aren’t yet fast enough to efficiently make larger parts. But even 1% or 2% of the 30,000+ parts in a car could save the company money and improve car performance.
It’ll take a few years longer for the technique to enter the more general production process because right now the company’s 3D-printing capabilities are limited to prototyping. But Quinn, who leads a team that’s 10 months old, is in charge of integrating 3D printing into the production-level manufacturing process. While GM starts to add this ability to its factories, Quinn is also seeking external partners to bring generative design to the company’s cars sooner–which could mean simplification of its supply chain (and potentially a reduction in jobs).
Looking further into the future, Quinn sees potential in using generative design to customize car interiors, whether that be knobs or switches or the entire inside of the car. Without the need to create an entirely new production process and invest in new equipment to create a special type of car, the technology could help GM try things that may not have been feasible, business-wise, before. Quinn thinks this will start to manifest in GM’s cars in the next few years, particularly for small batches of cars that are designed for specific purposes like speed or off-roading. Generative design might also act like an extra layer of features that customers could request on top of the basic design of a car. “Just as we customize the screens of our phones, can we do that in our vehicles?” he says.