By Steve Campbell
Rapid Prototyping Revolutionizes Product Development
SEMA Garage Provides Quick Turnaround of Prototype Models
New products shape the automotive specialty-equipment industry, and companies that get their innovations to market earliest have the best chance for success. Millions of dollars are spent each year to research, design, develop and produce prototypes that are eventually honed into the finished parts that reach consumers’ vehicles. Until recently, that process has been time consuming and expensive—especially for smaller manufacturers that don’t have huge budgets. But technology is changing the R&D process.
Technology is changing the automotive research-and-development process. Tools, such as computer-aided design software, coordinate measuring machines and three-dimensional printers allow prototypes to be refined and perfected before production tooling ever comes into play.
“In the Tech Transfer program, we receive the CAD files directly from Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and Scion and are then able to offer the files to our members,” said Mike Spagnola, SEMA’s vice president of OEM and product development programs. “For example, a member may be developing an intake manifold on a ’15 Ford Mustang or a suspension component for a ’15 Chevy truck. We can provide the associated OEM CAD files to that member, which they can use in developing the new product.”
Once an aftermarket manufacturer has created a CAD version of a new part, the company can send the modified file back to the SEMA Garage, where technicians can print a prototype on SEMA’s Stratasys 3D printer. The SEMA Garage staff can even test-fit the prototype plastic part directly to the applicable vehicle, if available, to ensure correct dimensions and tolerances.
Without the OE CAD files, an aftermarket manufacturer would have to perform as many manual measurements as possible on the subject vehicle, make CAD drawings based on those measurements and then go through a tedious trial-and-error process over numerous revisions to finally develop a correct prototype. Or the SEMA-member company could use another tool in the SEMA Garage: the FaroArm, a portable coordinate measuring machine.
SEMA also has the latest prototyping tools available at the SEMA Garage—Industry Innovations Center. The FaroArm coordinate measuring machine allows SEMA engineers to produce their own CAD files for use in prototyping.
Portable CMMs utilize computer software and an electronic probe at the end of a control arm to digitally record the coordinates of points on the surface of the part being measured. With different arm lengths and probe types—including laser scanners that read and record everything the laser hits—CMMs transmit X, Y and Z coordinate data to CAD files, which can then be used to create drawings, plans and prototype parts. Because the measurements are extremely precise, much of the trial-and-error fitment process is eliminated, saving time and money.
Portable CMMs can be used to measure and/or create nearly any type of part, according to Mike Koski, account manager for FaroArm. Depending upon the size and type of machine, everything from tiny screws to full vehicles can be scanned for CAD files. The laser allows the user to scan a component without touching it, moving the arm above the part. The laser projects a line onto the part so that the user can see where he’s scanning, and the probe—which has a camera with a lens—essentially builds a picture of the part in computer software using more than 45,000 data points per second. (The new Faro Edge ScanArm HD offers 560,000 points per second.) The picture can then be converted to a CAD file.
CMMs utilize computer software and an electronic probe at the end of a control arm to digitally record the coordinates of points on the surface of a part.
“FARO spends as much time as possible to train users,” Koski said. “Becoming proficient may take half a day or a couple of days, depending on the machine and the operator.”
Various companies also offer CMM and other prototyping services, but SEMA provides its expertise and tools at about a third the cost of what manufacturers might find elsewhere.
“We offer scanning when we don’t have access to the original-equipment files,” Spagnola said. “For example, Toyota does not offer us CAD files, so we can bring a Toyota vehicle into the SEMA Garage and scan the requested product ourselves with our FaroArm. Scanning tolerances can be as close as .0001 in., and we have two degreed engineers who are constantly scanning automotive parts to expand our library.”
Once a CAD file is available, either from the Tech Transfer library or from a CMM scan, product developers can produce actual prototypes using 3D printers. The printers build full-scale versions of parts from CAD drawings, stacking thin layers of material—plastic, in the case of SEMA’s Stratasys printer—to create a 3D model.
“A 3D printer can produce anything a designer can put into a CAD file,” said Steve Gibson, West Coast applications manager for Stratasys. “They can create things that are impossible to manufacture otherwise. Our smallest machine provides a 5x5x5-in. build envelope, and our largest provides about a 3-ft. build envelope. The smallest wall thickness would be about .003 in.”
When a manufacturer supplies a CAD file to the SEMA Garage, technicians can use the facility’s Stratasys 3D printer to produce a full-scale plastic prototype model. Parts that are too large for the on-site printer may be outsourced to SEMA’s vendor—all at significant savings over what is available from other sources.
“Printers are ever-changing,” Gibson said. “In fact, I was just reading about biological printing, where developers are producing ears and skin for grafts—not human yet, but that’s coming. The thought is that we will eventually be able to replace those types of body parts with actual human tissue built in 3D printers.”
Gibson said that there are also printers already in existence that work with metal, using high-intensity lasers to bond powder together with a binder to build a metal part. “A 3D printer speeds development but also produces better parts,” he said. “They are better designed because the manufacturer may try different things and build multiple iterations. All they have to do is change a digital file and grow another part.”
Commercial-grade Stratasys printers start at about $5,999 and can be as much as $500,000, with multiple unit prices in between.
“There is also a whole different consumer level at the lower end,” Gibson said. “A home hobbyist can get into one of those for a couple grand, but they have to work a little harder at getting a good output. They’re still working with CAD files, and they’re still working with layers, whether they’re formed from powder or liquid resin or extruded plastic.”
While some SEMA members are investing in their own printers and CMMs, Spagnola emphasized that the SEMA Garage can provide members with either internally generated and external vendor prototyping at far more economical pricing than is available generally.
“We get a lot of requests for performance engine components such as intake manifolds, air intakes, and mounting areas that locate an engine,” he said. “We also get a lot of requests for suspension components for either lifting or lowering a truck as well as modified suspension components for performance cars such as Mustangs and Corvettes, and we can do moving pieces. If you can dream it, it can be printed.”
Specialty-equipment manufacturers and many of the automakers understand that offering a wide range of products helps to sell more cars. The SEMA rapid prototyping program provides a great way for the original-equipment manufacturers to get involved, augment the products available for their models and ensure that all products are developed in the most professional way possible.
Companies that wish to take advantage of the SEMA Garage rapid prototyping tools and opportunities may contact Rachael Salazar, SEMA’s senior coordinator for OEM and product development programs, via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-978-6728.
The prototyping team will assess the request and provide a quote based on the services used and the size of the project. For more information about SEMA Garage capabilities, including help with Executive Orders, use of the professionally equipped photo alcove and the facility’s nearly $2 million worth of tools and equipment, visit www.sema.org/sema-garage or e-mail Mike Spagnola at firstname.lastname@example.org.