Chevrolet’s 3-D prototype process may drive the development of cooler cars in the future

Chevrolet Malibu RevealA new process used to update the Chevrolet Malibu for the 2014 model sounds more like the plot of a sci-fi movie than anything tied to designing cars.      

To refresh the Malibu’s interior and exterior, Chevrolet designers used a process known as rapid prototyping, which involves 3-D printing of parts.

The technology, as described in a Chevrolet press release, “literally” grows prototype parts out of powder or liquid resin at a fraction of the cost associated with building tools to make test parts.

Rapid prototyping, which uses processes officially known as selective laser sintering and stereo lithography, requires specialized software, math data and digital lasers, which accomplish in days what would have taken weeks of clay sculpting in the past, notes Chevrolet.

In a nutshell, it enables designers and engineers to more quickly build test versions of car components and systems that they can actually see, touch and feel in precise one-third scale and full-size models without having to make changes to production tooling, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“When you need to get intricate, fully functional prototype parts quickly, nothing beats rapid prototyping,” said Todd Pawlik, chief engineer, Chevrolet mid- and full-size cars. “Our ability to rapidly fabricate inexpensive prototype parts throughout a vehicle enables key components to get confirmed earlier so that we can go from computer models to production-caliber parts.”  

On the Malibu, rapid prototyping was used to update the sedan’s new floor console (below), which now features a pair of integrated smartphone holders for the driver and passenger. The new console also weighs less, which helps contribute to the Malibu’s improved fuel economy over the previous model.

Chevrolet Malibu Rapid PrototypingRapid prototyping was also used to update the Malibu’s center stack trim and redesigned front fascia, enabling aerodynamic and climatic wind tunnel testing without expensive production parts.  In addition, the process was used to re-sculpt the Malibu’s front seat back panels to improve the knee room for rear passengers.

How does the process work?

First, selective laser sintering fuses plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powders in cross sections, as indicated in the Chevy press release. Then, a laser scans a pattern on the surface of the powder, fusing the particles together into a layer four-thousandths of an inch thick. As each new layer of powder is added, scanned and fused to the previous one, the part gradually takes shape within the 28-cubic inch reservoir. 

Stereo lithography then combines photochemistry and laser technology to build parts from liquid photopolymer resins. The parts are also built up in layers as a UV laser traces the section onto the surface of the resin, curing the liquid into a solid as it scans. Because the resin won’t support the parts being formed, a fine lattice-like structure is generated below each part during the manufacturing process.

However, what’s most intriguing about rapid prototyping is the capabilities that it appears to give a carmaker when moving from a concept to a full production vehicle. With the availability of this kind of technology, it seems that carmakers wouldn’t be as limited by some of the previous factors that have prevented them from turning some of those hot concepts into actual road vehicles.

In fact, rapid prototyping may even enable carmakers to make better use of consumer input during the entire development phase of a vehicle before the car goes to market.

The process of 3D modeling is already being used by Pininfarina to potentially develop a new car called the Sergio based on a concept, as reported by Digital Trends in an earlier article.   

Either way, I’m certain we’ll be hearing a lot more about rapid prototyping from Chevrolet and a lot of other automakers. Still, what’s most exciting is what the technology could potentially give birth to in the future.             

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robots that eat landmines and clean your floors

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (April 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Mobile

Samsung Galaxy S10 update gives manual control of Bright Night mode

Samsung 2019 flagship smartphone lineup is here, and there aren't just two phones as usual — there are four. There's the Galaxy S10, S10 Plus, as well as a new entry called the S10e, as well as the Galaxy S10 5G.
Cars

From rugged wagons to hot sports cars, the 2019 NY Auto Show brought it all

From city cars to supercars, anything goes at the New York Auto Show. Automakers from all over the globe traveled to the 2019 show to unveil their newest concept cars and production models.
Cars

Café racer-inspired ebike hits 28 mph quickly and quietly with carbon belt drive

Ebike manufacturer Electra launched the Café Moto Go, an advanced ebike. The Café Moto Go's step-over frame was inspired by café racers. The Café Moto Go is a premium performance ebike built to run smoothly and extra quietly.
Cars

Where to go when your EV is low: Rich neighborhoods have most charging stations

If you're running low on juice in your electric vehicle, head for the rich part of town. A survey by Realtor.com found median home list prices in the 20 U.S. ZIP codes with the most EV charging stations were 2.6 times the national average.
Cars

Ford is keeping hackers out of its cars by putting key fobs to sleep

Ford found a way to stop thieves who try to hack their way into a car by duplicating its key fob. It developed a smart key fob that puts itself to sleep when it's idle for at least 40 seconds. It automatically wakes up when someone picks it…
Cars

This vintage Ford Bronco off-roader has a modern electric powertrain

Zero Labs took a classic Ford Bronco and replaced its gasoline engine with an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack. So you get the style and off-road capability of a Bronco, but with zero emissions.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Earth Day, indoor container farming, robot submarines

Today on Digital Trends Live, we discuss how technology intersects with Earth Day, a new Tim Cook biography, indoor container farming, robot spy submarines, A.I. death metal, and more.
Cars

Tesla will have ‘autonomous robotaxis’ in 2020, Elon Musk says

Tesla will deploy self-driving cars in a "robotaxi" service in 2020, CEO Elon Musk said at the automaker's Autonomy Investor Day. Musk has promised autonomous Tesla electric cars before, but will he finally deliver this time?
Cars

Startup Smartcar accuses bigger rival Otonomo of stealing intellectual property

California-based startup Smartcar claims its intellectual property was stolen by a much bigger (and better-funded) rival named Otonomo. Otonomo hasn't given its side of the story yet.
Cars

2020 Nissan 370Z Special Edition celebrates 50 Years of the Z car

Nissan is celebrating 50 years of its iconic "Z car" with a special edition of the 2020 370Z. The 50th-anniversary model is dressed to look like a 1970s race car, but remains technically unchanged.
Product Review

BMW’s smallest M car is its biggest performance statement

The BMW M2 Competition is frighteningly quick in a straight line, and its short wheelbase lends itself to some hilarious power slides, but it’s the curvy roads and tight tracks where this coupe comes alive.
Cars

Tesla rushes investigators to China to figure out why a parked Model S exploded

Tesla has sent a team of in-house investigators to Shanghai to determine why an early Model S suddenly exploded and caught fire. The electric sedan was parked before the fire started, and the cause of the blaze remains unknown.