THREE-DIMENSIONAL PRINTING Ford has started testing 3D printing technology for more efficient low-volume production
Automotive manufacturer Ford Motor Company is testing the three-dimensional (3D) printing of large-scale car parts using the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer at the Ford Research and Innovation Centre, in Dearborn, US.
Ford is the first automotive company to trial this technology and is exploring potential applications for future production vehicles, including Ford performance products and personalised car parts.
Large automotive parts, such as spoilers, can be manufactured affordably and efficiently using 3D printing. Printed parts can also be lighter in weight than traditionally manufactured parts and might help improve fuel efficiency.
The Stratasys Infinite Build system is capable of printing automotive parts of any shape or length. “It is considered a breakthrough for vehicle manufacturing,” says Ford manufacturing research technical leader Ellen Lee.
“With Infinite Build technology, we can print large tools, fixtures and components, making us nimbler in design iterations.”
According to market researcher Global Industry Analysts, the global market for this emerging technology is expected to reach $9.6-billion by 2020.
With 3D printing, specifications for a part are transferred from the computer-aided design programme to the printer’s computer, which analyses the design. The device then goes to work, printing one layer of material at a time and then gradually stacking layers into a finished 3D object.
When the system detects the raw material or supply material canister is empty, a robotic arm automatically replaces it with a full canister. This enables the printer to operate unattended for hours or even days.
This technology is not yet fast enough for high-volume manufacturing, but is more cost and functionally efficient for low-volume production, such as race cars.
Ford research and advanced engineering director Mike Whitens says that 3D printing holds the promise of changing automotive design and manufacturing because it opens up new ways to innovate and create efficiencies in production.
“Our vision at Ford is to make high-speed and -quality printing of automotive- grade parts a reality. “The Infinite Build concept can unlock future opportunities for scalable and versatile manufacturing,” he concludes.