WARREN, Mich.—Dave Bolognino’s father was a wood model maker at Chevolet Engineering in the 1980s when he came across one of the first rapid prototyping (RP) machines.
“My father was also an amateur investor and he thought this machine had the potential to revolutionize things,” Bolognino recalls.
His father took the idea to General Motor’s leadership and the carmaker slowly started adopting the technology.
Nearly 30 years later, GM has become one of the industry’s major users of RP with at least 18 machines. Most of those are selective laser sintering (SLS) and stereo lithography apparatus (SLA) machines, which build up finished products from raw material in layers.
The automaker’s RP lab, located in Warren, Mich., manages an ongoing flow of receiving, scheduling, manufacturing and express shipping of more than 20,000 components a year.
Bolognino, who followed his father into GM and is now director of design fabrication operations, has been able to oversee RP’s evolution into what he calls “a game-changer of epic proportion.”
He says RP has helped GM’s aerodynamics lab double capacity of testing scale models over the past two years. It’s also been vital in the pre-production of vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt, helping to design, develop and validate the battery cooling system.
GM doesn’t disclose how much it has spent on the technology, but
Bolognino says there’s no doubt it has paid off.
“The return on investment is significant when you consider it eliminates the need for tooling, gives you free design changes and gets you to the testing phase sooner,” he says.
RP isn’t only changing the game for GM.
The technology, which is now used in shops in Canada, is helping auto manufacturers compete on a global scale, says Steve Rodgers, president of the Automobile Parts Manufacturers’ Association (APMA).
“You’re now going from concept through to finished design in some cases in less than 22 months,” he says.
While Canada isn’t a leader in RP, it has the potential to gain greater ground internationally.
Rodgers says researchers at the University of Waterloo, McMaster University and the University of Windsor are pushing the envelope, but facilities here have to stay on top of things as well.
“It’s like buying a blackberry. You know the technology is already helping you become more productive, but there’s probably a bunch of additional capabilities like 3D maps or zoom pass auto payments that you’re not bothering to learn,” he says.
RP is similar, he says, in that there’s a lot of infrastructure required to optimize the technology, such as being able to align machines or communicate with the net wirelessly.
Government funding to regularly train employees would help. So would incentives to help manufacturers purchase or upgrade equipment.
Even with that infrastructure in place, Canada still has to address another gap.
While engineers such as Bolognino have followed their parents’ generation into the trade, it’s getting rarer.
“On the college level now, we can’t get enough students interested in becoming machine operators. These are highly skilled, highly paid jobs. We need to do more to convince people to get back into the auto industry,” Rodgers says.