Focus3D printing may increase Detroit's demand for petchem plastics

12 June 2013 21:33  [Source: ICIS news]

By Mark Yost

DETROIT (ICIS)--Through a process called rapid prototyping that uses three-dimensional (3D) printers to produce prototype parts from plastic resins, General Motors is turning around upgrades that are cheaper and quicker to make for products such as dashboards, centre consoles and other interior parts, the company said on Wednesday.

The net result for petrochemical makers who supply raw materials such as acrylonitrile (ACN), nylon and polycarbonate (PC) to the auto industry could be increased demand for their products.

"If the auto makers are able to use this technology to refresh models quicker and cheaper, that means they'll do it more often," said one petrochemical maker with offices in Detroit. "If they do it more often, then they'll need more and more of our materials. It's a win-win for us."

GM used the new technology to refresh the Chevrolet Malibu’s interior and exterior for 2014. The process, GM said, literally grows prototype parts out of powder or liquid resin at a fraction of the cost associated with building tools to make test parts. Selective laser sintering and stereo lithography – the official names of the processes – helped accelerate the Malibu’s development and evaluation. Both processes use specialized software, math data and digital lasers, which accomplished in days what would have taken weeks of clay sculpting in the past.

GM said rapid prototyping enables designers and engineers to quickly see, touch and test versions of individual components and systems in precise one-third scale and full-size models without having to make changes to production tooling, which can cost 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 of 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-calibre parts.”  

Rapid prototyping proved particularly useful for updates to the Malibu’s floor console, which now features a pair of integrated smartphone holders for driver and passenger, GM said. The new console also weighs less, which helps contribute to the Malibu’s improved fuel economy.

GM also used rapid prototyping to update the centre stack trim and evaluate various surface treatments for the console and centre stack of the Malibu; created a prototype of Malibu’s redesigned front fascia, enabling aerodynamic and climatic wind tunnel testing without expensive production parts; and was able to re-sculpt the front seat back panels, which are located between the seat frame and upholstery, for improved rear seat access and passenger comfort.

According to GM, the process fuses plastic, metal, ceramic or glass powders in cross sections. A laser then 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-inch-cubed reservoir. 

Stereo lithography 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.

"It's just one of the ways that we're seeing the automakers integrate more of our plastic products into their cars," said one petrochemical maker.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) estimates that each automobile contains an average of $3,297 (€2,473) worth of chemicals, such as acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), nylon, PC and others. Among the companies that provide petrochemical-based plastics and resins to the auto industry are Ascend Performance Materials, BASF, Dow Chemical, INEOS, Honeywell, SABIC and Styron.

($1 = €0.75)

By: Mark Yost
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