General Motors has been at the forefront of America’s fight against COVID-19. The automaker took on a $490 million government contract to begin producing ventilators to supply the nation’s hospitals, which have begun to run short on the life-saving machines amid the pandemic, and it is also producing much-needed PPE including face masks, face shields and medical gowns.
3D printing technology has been a crucial part of GM’s battle with COVID-19, with the automaker’s director of additive manufacturing, Ron Daul, saying it “could not have responded to the coronavirus as quickly as we did without 3D printing.” For example, nearly all the tools needed to assemble the Ventec brand ventilators that GM is manufacturing in Indiana are 3D printed. These tools are mostly “nests” which are used to hold parts in place during the assembly process and are reverse engineered using data from Ventec and another ventilator supply company, Hamilton Medical.
It’s not just ventilators, either. GM used 3D printing to produce plastic “ear savers” for medical face masks and other parts for medical face shields. GM’s face shields, which it has produced more than 17,000 of to date, were developed using an open-source design and then rapidly prototyped using 3D printers. GM’s additive manufacturing team then delivered early prototypes to medical workers before going back to the drawing board to some adjustments based on their feedback. This process was entirely enabled by 3D printing, as the technology allows engineers to quickly produce and modify a design.
“3D printing allows us to make constant, rapid changes to fixtures based on feedback from the assembly teams,” said GM’s senior manufacturing engineer, Dominick Lentine.
GM says its ability to produce 3D printed medical equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic was “enabled by recent investments in additive manufacturing,” including its new Additive Innovation Lab in Michigan. The 4,000 square foot facility, which is located within GM’s Global Technical Center in Warren, trains GM manufacturing employees on how to operate the 3D printers and software, convert files into physical parts and then process the parts. The automaker says it has trained more than 400 employees at the facility from both its salaried and hourly workforce.
GM says 3D printing will continue to play a major role in its engineering and production operations going forward, with the automaker opening a new Additive Industrialization Center in late 2020 within the Warren tech center.