3-D printing accelerates Honda Pilot development

DETROIT — Automakers are again taking a run at accelerating vehicle development, this time with an assist from 3-D printing.

The latest example comes from Honda, whose just-launched 2016 Pilot is the product of a new computer-driven process in which the automaker eliminated hand-built prototypes.

The approach cut “several months” from the nearly three-year effort from when the new Pilot was envisioned to the start of mass production, said Jeff Tomko, president of Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, the assembly complex in Lincoln where the Pilot is built.

The new Pilot was developed “in a virtual world,” Tomko said at a briefing here. “We developed the manufacturing process virtually so we can make changes before we start with actual builds.”

Car manufacturers have long sought to move vehicles faster from the sketch board to the production line.

Toyota reverses course

In the last decade, Toyota accelerated development in a push to launch a barrage of new models around the globe, part of a drive to expand sales and pass General Motors as the world’s largest automaker by sales volume. One change was to eliminate production of prototypes.

The No. 1 Japanese automaker grew rapidly but its breakneck pace also brought quality problems, among them the accelerator pedal and floor mat issues that were tied to the company’s sudden-acceleration crisis in 2010.

In response, Toyota reversed course and planned to extend its development cycles somewhat to help root out design or manufacturing glitches. It resumed building physical test vehicles.

Now 3-D printing is enabling automakers to again push the envelope. Ford and GM use 3-D printing extensively to test part designs in development.

Quicker testing

In developing the Pilot, Honda used 3-D printers to quickly test a new center-console design that might eliminate electrical interference, Tomko said. While working to streamline difficult assembly tasks, Honda printed a new type of tool to help workers lift and install the vehicle’s steering column. That enabled developers to show it would work efficiently without having to spend the time and money to build the actual lift, Tomko said.

The manufacturing processes used to build the Pilot were engineered and proofed entirely by computer simulation, Tomko said.

“Our r&d team went to Alabama, and the first Pilot we built was built on the assembly line, not in a research lab,” he said.

Tomko noted that Honda is producing many more variations of the redesigned Pilot than it did of the outgoing version.

The Alabama plant will be the sole global production site for the Pilot and is expected to export the vehicle to China, Europe and South America — 46 markets in all.

Honda also is using no-prototype development for the redesigned Ridgeline pickup expected to arrive next year.

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