GM Lansing manufacturing innovations
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This wearable human grasp-assist device was invented by GM in collaboration with NASA Johnson Space Center. (GM)

3D printed tools and Robo-Glove make inroads at GM assembly plant

A few General Motors manufacturing plant workers are sharing space with collaborative robots, suggesting assembly line applications for 3D printed parts—and potentially in the future, some line operators will gain grasp-assist from a wearable device.

“Technology is transforming our manufacturing environment. But this isn’t about technology for technology-sake. There are specific business applications and specific business reasons for why we’re making the investments we’re making,” Dan Grieshaber, Director of General Motor’s Manufacturing Engineering Integration, said at a recent media program at the Lansing Delta Township assembly plant in Michigan.

One of the recent investments at the 3.6 million  ft3 facility is a dedicated area for the 3D printing of parts via the largest 3D printer (bed and print size) among GM’s 18 North American assembly plants.

Over the past two years, 3D printed parts produced at the plant have netted approximately $300,000 in savings versus vendor-supplied parts. It’s possible to design a 3D-part in three hours and produce it in a solid shape within three days, according to Zane Meike, additive manufacturing plant lead.

“We’ve done many parts for many different applications, including production aids, ergo tools for operators, and prototypes,” said Meike. referencing the 3D printed parts made from various powders, including carbon fiber-infused nylon.

On a weekly basis, Meike and hourly colleagues from other plants share 3D printing tips during a conference call. “We also have a dedicated website. So anytime I create a design, I put that on the website and make it available for others to use or modify for their needs,” Meike said.

Problem-solving at the plant-level is more than just a cost-reduction opportunity. “It’s also about being able to apply a solution very quickly. It feeds on itself, so the number of applications will grow significantly,” said Grieshaber.

Robo-Glove expands its grip
This fall, GM launches a large-scale pilot program for the Robo-Glove, a wearable human grasp-assist device that uses actuators, pressure sensors and synthetic tendons to help prevent tendon stress from repetitive movements. GM engineers invented the Robo-Glove in collaboration with NASA researchers as an offshoot of the Robonaut 2 humanoid robot-in-space program.   

GM's glove-assist test program will involve at least 20 line operators doing various tasks, such as door assembly and roof rail airbag assembly, at a yet-to-be-named North American vehicle assembly plant. “We’ve already had multi-day trials at different powertrain and assembly plants, but we’ll do this pilot program for at least four months,” said Marty Linn, GM’s Principle Robotics Engineer.

The Robo-Glove assist is being produced under license by Bioservo Technologies AB of Sweden as Ironhand® in a system that includes a backpack for servo-motors, batteries, and a control system. “We believe these gloves will assist operators in doing their jobs better and longer without the risk of injury and fatigue,” said Linn, noting the gloves are not an exoskeleton. “The glove simply uses your skeleton as we don’t want the forces to be greater than your skeleton can handle.”

Grieshaber said that human-assist and other technologies have a crucial role in assembly plants. “This is being driven by our need to be much more responsive to lower volume product line-ups,” he said.

“All of these technologies, to a large extent, are about making our people more productive. It’s about using technologies to help workers do their jobs more safely and more efficiently while helping them achieve higher quality products,” said Grieshaber, “In the end, it’s still a people business.” Continue reading »
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