Ford looks to 3D printing to manufacture large one-piece auto parts for its future vehicle prototypes

7 Mar

By Anmol Sachdeva, The Tech Portal

The art of 3D printing has been around for long but not many real-world applications of the same have emerged to the surface. Ford is, however, looking to break the mold by experimenting with 3D printing technology to manufacture large one-piece auto parts. The said initiative will enable the automaker to print components (like spoilers) for its future prototypes and production vehicles.

This experimental effort is being powered by 3D printing giant Stratasys’ Infinite Build 3D printer, which is housed at Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan. This monstrous machine is expected to provide Ford with a more efficient, as well as affordable way to create tooling, prototype parts and components for their products. These will initially be produced for low volume vehicles.

Ford is the first automaker to make use of this technology in their manufacturing process, enabling it to produce lighter and cheaper components for its vehicles. The automaker believes that reduction in weight of the vehicle will help it achieve greater fuel efficiency. Talking about their vision for 3D printing, Ellen Lee, Ford technical leader, additive manufacturing research said,

With Infinite Build technology, we can print large tools, fixtures and components, making us more nimble in design iterations. We’re excited to have early access to Stratasys’ new technology to help steer development of large-scale printing for automotive applications and requirements.

The Stratasys Infinite Build, the automaker adds, could be a breakthrough for vehicle manufacturing as it is capable of printing parts of practically any shape, size as well as length. This 3D printing machine is a beast and provides for rapid prototyping of components and parts for building its upcoming vehicles. This also gives the automaker control over their designs, which can be modified and instantly printed to meet their needs.

As for the process, the specifications of a particular component are transferred from the design program to the printer’s computer. It then analyzes the input design before starting to print out the component, one layer of material at a time. The process is similar to the usual 3D printing procedure, but everything here is automated. Once the supply or raw material for the printer runs out, the robotic arm itself replaces it with a new full one. This makes the printer capable of operating unattended for days, but do see that you have provided enough supplies.

If the pilot program currently being run by Ford goes perfectly fine, then you might witness vehicles built partially using 3D printing technology in the coming years. While the commercial 3D printer will definitely benefit the automaker, it will also hand over control to owners who’d like to get their vehicles customized. The company could open up the 3D printing feature, very much like choosing a designer back panel for your phone, enabling them to add or remove certain components from their vehicle. Ford is not shying from exploring this avenue as well.

According to analysts, recent technology advances will further drive adoption of 3D printing in new areas of application. The analysts also believe that the global market for this technology is expected to reach $9.6 billion by 2020. Thus, there are immense possibilities for the application of this new-age technology in the industry ranging from medicine to aerospace.