Robert Yancey takes us through how General Motors is disrupting the automotive design and manufacturing industry through the adoption of innovative 3D printing and generative design technologies

Global carmaker, General Motors (GM) is taking a big leap forward in automotive design by imagining a future of lighter, more efficient, and customizable cars. It is the first major North American automotive manufacturer to adopt Autodesk’s generative design software, powered by artificial intelligence and cloud computing, to develop parts for its future vehicles.

The collaboration with Autodesk means that GM can explore arrays of design solutions, to produce more lightweight and stronger parts and components for vehicles. Through a combination of generative design and additive manufacturing, the company can make complex parts more efficiently and design unique components to customize vehicles, deliver better performance and more options than ever before to customers.

Enhancing automotive design through intelligent automation
Instead of evaluating design concepts for vehicle parts after development, GM’s use of generative design allows engineers to define design parameters and use algorithms to identify design options for them. GM can input certain requirements such as material, size, weight, strength, manufacturing method and cost constraints, after which the software uses AI-based algorithms to examine and identify several design options which meet these criteria.

Previously, designers and engineers would have been limited to a handful of designs, whereas they can now choose from hundreds or even thousands of design options that meet their stated requirements. The software makes it easier for designers to evaluate and make trade-off decisions from these options based on its calculations.

“Generative design is a way for us to explore different design solutions for parts and components of our vehicles by using the cloud and artificial intelligence to combine the engineer and the computer,” said GM Director of Additive Design and Manufacturing, Kevin Quinn. “By getting them to work together, we can come up with part-design solutions that would be impossible to generate with either the computer or the engineer working on their own.”

Moving away from traditional tools
Traditional automakers are investing in incremental upgrades to create tangible benefits for both their customers and the business. General Motors embodies this approach, using a combination of generative design and additive manufacturing, to create process efficiencies and ultimately to drive the continuous improvement of the performance of its vehicles.

“Generative design paired with additive manufacturing can be completely disruptive to our industry,” said Quinn, who added that the automotive industry has historically been impeded by the limitations of traditional manufacturing tools such as mills and injection molds.

Also, traditional tools are as expensive as they are inflexible, which makes experimentation more difficult, and can impede the product improvement process. Generative design and additive manufacturing can support a huge number of design solutions with minimal capital investment. A single piece of software paired with a single 3D printer can produce myriad parts and unlimited forms—including organic shapes and internal lattices, which can only be executed using additive manufacturing.

Speeding up the process
To understand the business case for generative design, consider GM’s use of Autodesk’s Fusion 360, for the redesign of a seat component. GM engineers used the technology to design a new, functionally optimised seat belt bracket, to facilitate lighter vehicles and a shorter supply chain. While the typical seat bracket is a part consisting of eight pieces welded and bolted together, the new proof-of-concept produced a component made up of just one stainless-steel piece, which is 40 per cent lighter and 20 per cent stronger than the original seat bracket.

The benefits of generative design go well beyond light-weighting. Its ability to dramatically compress the product development process has the potential to create huge cost savings in the long-term for automotive manufacturers, like GM. By generating the different designs automatically and at speed, this technology also has the potential to free designers and engineers from monotonous tasks and enable them to focus on more important decisions, such as how to maximise part performance.

Applied across hundreds or even thousands of parts, it’s easy to see how such improvements could make vehicles cheaper and more fuel efficient and improve the speed of manufacturing processes.

Looking to the future
Since 2016, GM has launched 14 new vehicle models with a total mass reduction of over 5000 pounds or more than 350 pounds per vehicle. But this is just the start. In the future, GM envisions using additive manufacturing to affordably and efficiently make service parts at dealerships and to customize its vehicles.

For GM, it’s about continuing to deliver benefits to customers. The company is already looking at how additive manufacturing could allow customers to order custom trim packages or personalise their vehicles with their names or the logos of their favourite sports teams. “If we can offer something that our competitors don’t, that will set our vehicles apart,” Quinn said.

Robert Yancey is Director of Manufacturing Industry Strategy and Business Development at Autodesk. Autodesk makes software for people who make things. If you’ve ever driven a high-performance car, admired a towering skyscraper, used a smartphone, or watched a great film, chances are you’ve experienced what millions of Autodesk customers are doing with its software.