From left, John Bolognino, 78, of Shelby Township, and his son, David Bolognino, 54, of Oxford, look at a model made by the 3D printers at the General Motors Tech Center in Warren. John helped push for bringing in 3D printers in the 1980s, while David now oversees the 3D lab.

From left, John Bolognino, 78, of Shelby Township, and his son, David Bolognino, 54, of Oxford, look at a model made by the 3D printers at the General Motors Tech Center in Warren. John helped push for bringing in 3D printers in the 1980s, while David now oversees the 3D lab.

Photo provided by General Motors


A father-and-son blueprint

Dad helped bring 3D printing to GM, his son has carried it forward

By: Joshua Gordon | Shelby - Utica News | Published June 29, 2018

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WARREN — In the 1980s, John Bolognino would make wooden die models for General Motors by working off blueprints and concept drawings to develop models for testing.

John, a Shelby Township resident, said that was a time-consuming method and didn’t allow for timely testing. But during lunch one day, John read a story on 3D printing by 3D Systems, which had started in California in 1986.

“I thought it would be excellent to make models for the design staff, so I wrote the company and they sent me some models, and I tried to get the attention of some people above me to start pushing for this,” John, now 78, said. “With 3D printing, I knew we could make a model very quick so the concept was in your hands quick. I thought 3D printing would save in time and cost in getting models out quickly.”

In 1988, GM purchased its first 3D printer, thanks in large part to John pleading the case of how beneficial it would be. John had the chance to work with the 3D printers for 16 years before he retired from GM in 2004.

At that same time, his son, David Bolognino, was named the director of design fabrication operations, overseeing the 3D lab for GM in what he called a “strange twist.” After 30 years, David has helped the 3D printing lab grow from five printers when his father retired to 32 machines now, making it the largest 3D lab in the auto industry at the GM Tech Center in Warren.

Like his father, David, 54, of Oxford, started at GM with an apprenticeship while he earned his engineering degree from Lawrence Technological University. David’s career took him through a fellowship at the University of Michigan to a research lab to working on the Cadillac Sixteen concept car.

Even though he wasn’t working hands-on with 3D printing before taking his current position, David said the work his dad and his colleagues were doing benefited him with concept vehicles, and he knew early on the importance of 3D printing in the auto industry.

“With me also being in the industry, a lot of the family dinner conversations revolved around prototypes and research labs,” David said. “I was a customer of my dad’s lab output, and I could see that 3D printing was absolutely instrumental in building concept vehicles quicker and cheaper. 

“With the benefit of having my dad’s wisdom, there is now two generations working with 3D printing to bring it to bear.”

One of the first models John had a chance to work on with the 3D printer was a car grill, which needed to be tested to determine air flow. John said it was a complicated model to make by hand, but with the 3D printer, GM was able to test it quicker and produce multiple iterations to test at the same time to see what worked best.

With a 3D printer, David said the machine takes a finite number of 2D pictures of an object and reconstructs those into a 3D object. He likened it to taking an apple, slicing it into several small slices and then putting them back together into the whole apple.

David said the lab’s largest machine is just under 4 feet wide and just under 2 feet deep. But the team is able to glue parts together to create full-size vehicle parts.

One of the primary uses for the 3D lab, David said, is to produce scale models to test in the recently completed aerodynamic tunnel, which utilizes models that are 40 percent scale. They also make models for product development, when it comes to design work.

“For us, 3D printing is a means to an end, which is to increase the speed of product development and add value to our customers,” David said. “With work in aerodynamic models, we can offer better fuel economy and handling. And you have a better quality of design because of the perspective these models offer.”

John started with GM in his apprenticeship in 1960 and retired after 44 years. He said that as he walks through the 3D lab nowadays, he sees things being produced that he couldn’t even have imagined when he retired 14 years ago, let alone when he was making models by hand in the 1980s.

There are some instances when models need to be done quickly, and other times when they need to be precise, and John said the 3D printing lab allows for a wide variety of models to be produced. To have been part of bringing it in, and now with his son overseeing the lab, John said it is something to behold.

“To see with my own eyes the size, complexity and speed of which they are building these models and the usage they put them through, I am really proud I was able to be part of the beginnings of that,” John said. “With the vision I had with 3D printing, I was never thinking my son would be in the position to carry it forward, and he has carried it much further than I did. I am extremely proud of what has happened.”

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