LANSING, Michigan -- General Motors is increasing the use of 3-D printing at its plants to streamline operations, which has the potential to save millions of dollars in annual production costs.
Dan Grieshaber, GM's director of global manufacturing integration, said most of GM's factories already have 3-D printers. Utilization of the technology has recently increased, leading GM to expand and better standardize operations.
"We're quickly evolving, creating real value for the plant," he said Tuesday during a tour of GM's Lansing Delta Township Assembly in mid-Michigan. "This will become, as we progress, our footprint. We'll have this in every one of our sites."
3-D printing is being embraced by industries across the U.S. to produce rapid prototype parts for design and manufacturing. GM is using it to quickly build tools and accessories for workers at the plant.
A roughly $35,000 3-D printing machine, including housing, at GM's Lansing Delta Township plant has saved the company more than $300,000 over two years on tools and other accessories, according to Zane Meike, additive manufacturing lead at the facility.
While a few thousand dollars isn't much to GM, such savings across several tools and its global manufacturing footprint can quickly add up. For example, one common 3-D printed tool used to align engine and transmission vehicle identification numbers cost $3,000 to purchase from a third party. That same piece cost less than $3 to be 3-D printed at the plant.
"You can't do this in some remote central location and get the synergies of the everyday problem solving," Grieshaber said.
The Lansing Delta Township plant, which produces the Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave, originally purchased the machine to create kitting boxes for parts. However, other uses -- many suggested and submitted by plant workers -- continue to be adopted to improve safety and for cost savings.
Meike said the 3-D printer has been utilized for a couple dozen uses in the 3.6 million square foot plant, including socket covers, hangers for parts and other ergonomic and safety tools.
GM, according to Grieshaber, is working to standardize 3-D printing and share best practices across all of the company's plants globally.
The 3-D printing is part of what GM calls "Manufacturing 4.0," or "smart manufacturing." Both are all-encompassing terms for new manufacturing processes and tools being implemented.
Other processes and tools highlighted Tuesday at Lansing Delta Township included the use of drones for interior inspections and "collaborative robots" that can safely operate around and with human workers without the use of safety cages.
Marty Linn, a GM robotics engineer, said the automaker has more than 50 uses for such robotics, including stacking tires and calibrating a vehicle's headlights and long-range radar. Grieshaber said GM also plans to continue to expand the use of such collaborative robots.
"Integrating new technology with existing technology is really important," he said, adding that also includes implementing systems and processes to assist human workers.
GM also is utilizing big data and other sensing capabilities in plants to detect potential problems before they occur.
Such proactive measures could eventually lead to the machines having the capabilities to mend themselves, a form of artificial intelligence. Grieshaber declined to put a timeframe on such capabilities.
"There is a progression," he said. "And I always say, 'Just because you can doesn't mean you should.' This is the AI world. Do we need AI for everything? I think in a lot of cases, just understanding the data we have and what it's telling us is going to create a lot more productive environment and we don't need to make the investment to get there."