In developing the improvements to the freshened 2014 Chevy Malibu a year after the launch of the all-new 2013 Malibu, GM/Chevrolet designers used a very cost-effective and time-saving technique called rapid prototyping, aka 3D printing.
Those familiar with the method might already know that 3D printing literally grows prototype parts out of powder or liquid resin, usually at a fraction of the cost associated with building tools to produce parts intended for testing. The technique, which is also known by its official name of laser sintering and stereo lithography, uses specialized software, math data, and digital lasers, and performs in days what would have otherwise taken weeks of clay sculpting in the past, thereby accelerating the development and evaluation of the updates and improvements to the midsize sedan.
Rapid prototyping empowers designers and engineers to quickly see, touch, test, and analyze versions of individual components and systems in precise one-third scale and full-size models, without having to make changes to expensive production tooling, which can sometimes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“When you need to get intricate, fully functional prototype parts quickly, nothing beats rapid prototyping,” said chief engineer, Chevrolet mid- and full-size cars Todd Pawlik. “Our ability to rapidly fabricate inexpensive prototype parts throughout a vehicle enables key components to get confirmed earlier so that we can go from computer models to production-caliber parts.”
Designers found 3D printing/rapid prototyping particularly useful for updates to the floor console of the 2014 Malibu, which now features a pair of (very convenient) integrated smartphone holders for the driver and passenger. The new console also weighs less, contributing to the improved fuel economy of the midsize sedan.
Other Uses Of 3D Printing In The 2014 Malibu
The Malibu development team also used rapid prototyping to:
- Update the center stack trim and evaluate various surface treatments for the console and center stack
- Create a prototype of the 2014 Malibu’s redesigned front fascia, enabling aerodynamic and climatic wind tunnel testing without expensive production parts
- Re-sculpt the front seat back panels, located between seat frame and upholstery, for improved rear seat access and passenger comfort, adding 1.25 inches of knee room compared to the 2014 Malibu compared to its predecessor
How Does It Work?
Rapid prototyping utilizes selective laser sintering to fuse plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powders in cross sections. A laser scans a pattern on the surface of the powder, fusing the particles together into a layer four-thousandths of an inch thick. As each new layer of powder is added, scanned and fused to the previous one, the part gradually takes shape within the 28-inch-cubed reservoir.
Stereo lithography combines photochemistry and laser technology to build parts from liquid photopolymer resins. The parts are also built up in layers as a UV laser traces the section onto the surface of the resin, curing the liquid into a solid as it scans. Since the resin won’t support the parts being formed, a fine lattice-like structure is generated below each part during the manufacturing process.
The GM Authority Take
Considering that The General’s designers and engineers delivered such a substantial update to Chevy’s bread-and-butter product roughly a year after its market launch is nothing to sneeze at; in fact, we have a feeling the move will be studied by all kinds of industry players (read: competitors) in the future.
Now, as far as the consumer is concerned, the journey that led up to the 2014 Malibu might not be as important as the end result, but it’s great to see GM fusing high science and high technology in developing and improving its vehicles, all for the sake of speed, cost-effectiveness, and a better product.