When you need someone to crash into a wall at 70 miles an hour, Hybrid III, the U.S.’s standard crash-test dummy, is your man. It’s been that way since 1976, when Humanetics, a company that specializes in anthropomorphic test devices (the formal name for crash-test dummies) started machining parts from steel or aluminum, which not only creates waste, it makes slight changes and revisions costly and inefficient. Cars have changed, but Hybrid III has stayed pretty much the same — until now.
Four years ago, Humanetics got a call from the Department of Defense. They were looking for a more detailed head model on which they could test goggles and face shields. Suddenly, the clunky CNC-machined pieces didn’t cut it. They needed to create at least a dozen facial bones, each with its own sensors, and they needed to do it fast. The only real fabrication solution available was 3-D printing.
Humanetics turned to a ZPrinter, a 3-D printer that could quickly shape a mold for producing pieces in urethane. The entire process created parts in a day and a half instead of the week or more it takes to make steel or aluminum parts. Now, Humanetics makes all its dummy parts that way, and Kris Sullenberger, an engineer at the firm, estimates that it’s resulted in a 10-to-1 cost savings in both materials and machine time.
While the final product is visually unsettling (especially the eyeballs, yikes!) this represents a real breakthrough for the industry. Parts can now be made that are not only more accurately shaped like arms and legs and ears, but they can also be produced with materials that are more akin to skin, bone, and tissue. And presumably, if dummies are being manufactured at lightning speed, car safety features can be tested more quickly and efficiently, bringing new technology to market faster, passing the savings on to consumers, and (fingers crossed) creating a much safer product in the process.