Ford Motor Company is exploring how large-scale one-piece auto parts, such as spoilers, could be printed for prototyping and future production vehicles, as the first automaker to pilot the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer. It is housed at Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn.
Capable of printing automotive parts of practically any shape or length, the Stratasys Infinite Build system could be a breakthrough for vehicle manufacturing, by providing a more efficient, affordable way to create tooling, prototype parts and components for low-volume vehicles such as Ford Performance products, as well as personalised car accessories.
3D printing could bring immense benefits for automotive production, including the ability to produce lighter-weight parts that could lead to greater fuel efficiency. A 3D-printed spoiler, for instance, may weigh less than half its cast metal counterpart.
The technology is more cost-efficient for production of low-volume parts for prototypes and specialised racecar components. Additionally, Ford could use 3D printing to make larger tooling and fixtures, along with customised components.
With 3D printing, specifications for a part are transferred from the computer-aided design program to the printer’s computer, which analyses the design. The device then goes to work, printing one layer of material at a time, 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 allows the printer to operate unattended for hours or even days at a stretch.
Using traditional methods to develop, say, a new intake manifold, an engineer would create a computer model of the part, then have to wait months for prototype tooling to be produced. With 3D printing technology, Ford can print the intake manifold in a matter of days, at a significant cost reduction.
3D printing is not yet fast enough for high-volume manufacturing, but it is more cost-efficient for low-volume production. Additionally, minus the constraints of mass-production processes, 3D-printed parts can be designed to function more efficiently.
Wider adoption of 3D printing has been driven by recent technology advances, new areas of application and government support, according to Global Industry Analysts. By 2020, the global market for this emerging technology is expected to reach US$9.6 billion, the organisation reports. As 3D printing becomes increasingly efficient and affordable, companies are employing it for manufacturing applications in everything from aerospace to education to medicine.