Detroit and the Future of the Automobile: Will Additive Manufacturing Help GM Beat Silicon Valley at its Own Game?

Software and tech have eaten the automotive industry. Is 3D printing the key to Detroit's survival? GM plans to find out.

The American automotive industry is no stranger to additive manufacturing.  This process, commonly referred to as “3D Printing,” turns many traditional notions of manufacturing on their head.  Instead of removing material from a larger whole to arrive at a desired object (think: carving a statue from a marble block), additive manufacturing enables the creation of objects by joining materials together, layer by layer, to form a more precise end product with less waste.[1]  For more than three decades, Detroit automakers have used some version of this technique to enhance their prototyping processes, quickly iterating on precise three-dimensional models rather than having to hand-carve new models from clay.[2]

But as technology companies begin to impinge on these automakers’ traditional turf, from Tesla’s electric cars to Otto’s self-driving trucks, traditional automakers are forced to innovate at a far more rapid pace.  As they find themselves needing to co-opt the techniques used by these technology giants in order to survive, a key tool in this fight will be the adoption of additive manufacturing.

One company, General Motors (GM), appears to recognize its importance.  Ever since its 2009 bankruptcy and government bailout, GM has attempted to redefine itself with what CEO Mary Barra calls “a huge sense of urgency [on] transformative technologies.”[3]  Additive manufacturing is “key to developing”[4] the car of the future, the firm says.

In the short term, the company has announced a partnership with software company Autodesk to combine artificial intelligence capabilities with 3D printing to rapidly develop and test new part designs.[5]  This marks a major process improvement, as it dramatically improves the company’s ability to iterate with speed.  For example, as a result of this partnership GM has been able to build a reduced scale wind tunnel, which tests models 40% the size of production vehicles far earlier, cheaper, and faster.[6]

In the medium term, product development is improved as well.  GM’s additive manufacturing activities have resulted in remarkably lighter vehicle components.  These directly increase the company’s ability to compete in the fast-growing electric and hybrid segments, since lessening a vehicle’s overall mass reduces emissions and requires less of alternative propulsion.[7][8]

Moving forward, it is crucial that GM continues this focus on technology.  GM’s competitors are no longer traditional car companies but rather technology firms—“the automotive 3D printing industry is likely to reach $2.73 billion by 2023…a CAGR of 19.7%”.[9]  To survive, the company will need to adopt the Silicon Valley traits of rapid iteration and minimal viable product focus as core cultural practices.

To do so, it first needs to build intellectual property.  Automakers have purchased many autonomous vehicle companies; now the race is on to buy components of their production verticals.  Just as Detroit’s original mastery was not the building of the car but the assembly line, Ford and Porsche have already purchased stakes in 3D printing companies.[10][11]  If GM does not follow suit, will it find itself far behind or, worse, shut out from 3D printing altogether?

Looking out further, GM will need to develop its own core competency in additive manufacturing and other techniques.  To do so, it must actively learn from the cultural practices of the companies it acquires and imbue them throughout GM as a whole.

The question is, can GM continue to change its innovation culture?  Less than a decade after its bailout, the company talks a big game about its commitment to technology.  But technology is   not a fad; it is a mindset.  Whether GM can adopt to this new world remains to be seen.

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[1] Source: Choon Wee Joel Lim et. al., “An Overview of 3-D Printing in Manufacturing, Aerospace, and Automotive Industries,” IEE Potentials Volume 35, Issue 4 (Jul-Aug 2016), IEEE Xplore Digital Library, accessed November 2018.

[2] Sharmistha Sarkar, “3D Printing: A Game-Changer for the Automotive Manufacturing Industry,” Area Development, 2018, http://www.areadevelopment.com/Automotive/q3-2018-auto-aero-site-guide/3D-printing-game-changer-automotive-manufacturing-industry.shtml, accessed November 2018.

[3] Joann Muller, “Mary Barra Is Running GM with a Tight Fist and an Urgent Mission,” Forbes, May 2, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/joannmuller/2017/05/02/mary-barra-is-running-gm-with-a-tight-fist-and-an-urgent-mission/#320241971bdb, accessed November 2018.

[4] General Motors Company, “Advanced Software Design Technology Leads GM into Next Generation of Vehicle Lightweighting,” https://media.gm.com/media/us/en/gm/news.detail.html/content/Pages/news/us/en/2018/may/05 03- lightweighting.html accessed November 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] General Motors Company, “New GM Wind Tunnel Accelerates Fuel-Saving Designs,” https://media.gm.com/ media/us/en/gm/news.detail.html/content/Pages/news/us/en/2015/nov/1110-windtunnel.html accessed November 2018.

[7] General Motors Company, “Advanced Software Design Technology Leads GM into Next Generation of Vehicle Lightweighting,” https://media.gm.com/media/us/en/gm/news.detail.html/content/Pages/news/us/en/2018/may/05 03- lightweighting.html accessed November 2018.

[8] Patti Domm, “Electric vehicles: The little industry that could take a bite out of oil demand” CNBC, March 2, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/28/soon-electric-vehicles-could-cause-an-oil-crisis-.html, accessed November 2018.

[9] Sharmistha Sarkar, “3D Printing: A Game-Changer for the Automotive Manufacturing Industry,” Area Development, 2018, http://www.areadevelopment.com/Automotive/q3-2018-auto-aero-site-guide/3D-printing-game-changer-automotive-manufacturing-industry.shtml, accessed November 2018.

[10] Christoph Rauwald, “Porsche SE Buys Minority Stakes in 3D-Printing Manufacturers” Bloomberg, November 2, 2017, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-02/porsche-se-buys-minority-stakes-in-3d-printing-manufacturers, accessed November 2018.

[11] Kelly J. O’Brian, “Ford invests $65 million in 3d-printing startup Desktop Metal” Boston Business Journal, March 19, 2018, https://www.bizjournals.com/boston/news/2018/03/19/ford-invests-65-million-in-3d-printing-startup.html, accessed November 2018.

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13 thoughts on “Detroit and the Future of the Automobile: Will Additive Manufacturing Help GM Beat Silicon Valley at its Own Game?

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article, and I think your question, “can GM continue to change its innovation culture?” is a good question to be asking. Given the information presented in this article, I would argue that GM has had a shift in mindset regarding technology. Furthermore, the firm has made a verbal commitment to incorporate technology, and more importantly has taken actions to deliver on that promise. GM’s partnership with Autodesk is definitely a step in the right direction, and signals that the Company is dedicated to incorporating technology in a meaningful way. For these reasons, I believe that technology and the use of 3D printing will continue to be a permanent aspect of GM’s strategy going forward.

  2. Thanks for you article! As I am unfamiliar with the automotive industry, it was an interesting read.
    Regarding your question, I think GM should be careful with continuing to change its culture. Embracing additive manufacturing has worked for them and has shown great results, and I think they should keep focusing on that direction for now. Integrating too much too fast will cause confusion and inconsistencies, which will reflect in either delayed production or real faults in production cars. It seems GM is trying to bridge between tradition and innovation, and it should let the feedback loops settle before running too fast. As you’ve mentioned, the competition is going through similar changes, so it would not be losing too much of a relative advantage.

  3. Great article – thank you! An incremental concept to consider regarding additive manufacturing and vehicle production is the trade off between cost, speed and safety. Vehicle components will be lighter, enabling increased fuel efficiency, and will also be more cost-effective for GM. However, how realistic is it that this method will be superior for a large-scale vehicle / parts supplier, and how quickly? How does one ensure to maintain quality / safety in the process, without cutting corners during this massive shift? We know that recalls are extremely expensive and generate massive negative brand perception, especially in the event of injuries. Are we convinced that consumers will put their trust in these products given their mission-critical nature?

  4. Thanks for sharing this insightful piece about GM’s additive manufacturing investments. While I agree this could be an important long-term investment for the company, I’m curious what the short-term applications would be for the company. The wind tunnel and smaller-scale car model testing seems interesting, but still feels relatively insignificant compared to other strides companies are making in additive manufacturing. The key distinction seems to be between companies embracing additive manufacturing as a “fad” that can look like a good investment to investors, and companies actually using this concept effectively.

  5. It’s very interesting to think about one of the most classic companies trying to change their production process using new technologies. Given that additive manufacturing is traditionally used on faster, more limited prototypes, do you think GM has the ability to transform the technology to be effective in car production? Since there is so much at stake with auto manufacturing, it looks like there is still a ways to go for the cost and efficiencies to catch up. There have been some attempts at using this method as a supplement to test or restore cars: https://all3dp.com/2/10-coolest-3d-printed-cars-of-2018/, so it looks like there will be a lot more progress in the future. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Interesting combination of artificial intelligence and 3D printing approaches to boost innovation! However, I am skeptical to what extent GE will need to change their current manufacturing processes to adapt to the growing trend of 3D printing. I view 3D printing as an incremental improvement to the prototyping phase of a project, where we now have a more efficient and faster means to build prototypes for testing, however its impact on the final assembly line manufacturing should be minimal.

  7. One critical question for GM is the impact that additive manufacturing will have on their current operating model and margins. Today, additive manufacturing processes require expensive machines, high-cost raw material, and up-skilling of labor. Can GM really come up with the capital it needs to make this transition — to buy (& upgrade) this equipment, put up with the inventory risk, and hire new skilled 3-D printing operators? Additionally, once additive manufacturing really does get incorporated into auto manufacturer’s processes, how will the ability to create custom, personalized with 3-D printing — a unique car for everyone — hurt GM’s brand equity?

  8. This was fascinating. Thanks for sharing! I want to touch on your last point, “…technology is not a fad; it is a mindset” and the talent challenge it could prevent for a place like GM. You’ve stressed the need for GM to develop this capability internally, and I agree, in the long term, this is the most sustainable option for staying relevant in a changing industry. However, I question how effective GM will be in attracting that talent in the short to medium term. As you mentioned, in the short term, GM has partnered to expand its capability in this area because its the most efficient and effective way to utilize this capability quickly. While GM is trying to shift its perception, it takes time for potential employees to view the company differently and to view their opportunities for advancement differently. GM needs to shift the perception of their products and of the opportunities for innovation at their company if they want bright minds with the ability to bring long term additive manufacturing successes to life. GM is right to invest now, but I struggle with how long it will actually take for industry talent to catch on.

  9. Thank you very much for the article. As a “car” person, the automotive industry has always been really interesting to me. I personally believe that current automakers (traditionally capital intensive and with long product cycles) greatest challenge is to overcome the mentality of a slow-paced and product centered (as opposed to client centered) business. I believe that the company can change its mindset, but to do so it will have to make changes much deeper and more drastic to their culture than just partnering with technology companies and doing business the “old way” with new technology. GM must be bolder if it wants to remain in the game and be a true competitor to “big tech automotive”.

  10. Very interesting read. I absolutely agree that rapid iteration and prototyping is the new status quo. Its just a price to play. But I’m more in the camp that 3D printing has been fairly well represented within the automotive sector from the beginning and has been a key component to compete against companies like Ford. As the product development cycle for cars is squeezed, I don’t think GM could have even survived other competition outside of Silicon Valley. No doubt, as you point out though, that Silicon Valley automotive groups are putting the entire industry under a microscope though. Fascinating read.

  11. Awesome read. Absolutely agree that GM should be investing in additive manufacturing for the long-term viability of the business. My question would be around where this capital would come from? It seems you could raise debt or potentially reinvest internally generated cash flow. But perhaps the best solution would be to form a JV with another industrial tech co (but not a direct competitor) who is looking to continue to develop their own additive manufacturing capabilities.

  12. Thanks a lot for sharing RL – it was a very interesting read. It is apparent from your essay that additive manufacturing represents a huge opportunity for GM and the car industry as a whole with its cheaper and more efficient processes. It is interesting that even GM, given its tough financial history, is expended substantial amounts of money in this field. I do question how the competitive dynamics in this industry will play out, given there are a huge number of car manufacturers who are presumable also making strides in this field. Do you think the benefits in terms of less expensive, cheaper manufacturing will be competed away in this market, ultimately leading to cheaper cars for the consumer? Or do you think other companies with perhaps more firepower will be able to innovate more effectively than GM and reap the rewards?

  13. Thank you very much for the interesting report! The concept of 3D printing car is very interesting and if it works well it must be an entirely new production flow having a potential to beat any other car manufacturer in terms of production cost. No Kaizen is necessary anymore? In my understanding, current 3D printing technology is good at producing a new type of product such as new model or test production, but if it comes to a normal production, mass-production by belt conveyor still has cost benefit comparing to 3D printing, so it would be a challenge for GM to apply 3D printing to make the line truly efficient.
    To your quetions, “GM will need to develop its own core competency in additive manufacturing and other techniques. To do so, it must actively learn from the cultural practices of the companies it acquires and imbue them throughout GM as a whole.” I believe that open innovation can play a significant role. I wrote a report about how a traditional conglomerate where most people don’t have lean startup experience and where the organization has rigid vertical structure, open innovation with other companies which has a totally different DNA is necessary to bring innovation. Therefore, open innovation with autonomous car startup could be one solution for it..?

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