3D printers are great for making replacement organs, prosthetic limbs, working guns, and household trinkets. But what can they do for the auto industry?
Ford Motor Company is experimenting with 3D printing large-scale one-piece auto parts for prototyping.
The first automaker to pilot the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer, Ford aims to provide a more efficient, affordable way to create products and personalized car parts.
“With Infinite Build technology, we can print large tools, fixtures, and components, making us more nimble in design iterations,” Ellen Lee, Ford technical leader in charge of additive manufacturing research, said in a statement.
Ford Motor Company
Advances in technology, new areas of application, and government support have helped spur adoption of 3D printing, which is expected to reach $9.6 billion worldwide by 2020, according to Global Industry Analysts.
In the case of Ford Motors, the technique means lighter-weight elements for better fuel efficiency and more cost-effective production of low-volume parts.
Housed at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich., the massive system (which fits snugly into a warehouse room) transfers specifications from one computer to another, where it analyzes the design. Happy with its instructions, the device then goes to work gradually stacking layers into a finished 3D object.
Ford Motor Company
The smart machine can even detect when material has run out; a robotic arm automatically swaps in a full canister, allowing the printer to operate unattended for hours or days—hence the “Infinite Build” name.
Traditionally, for Ford to develop a new intake manifold, for instance, an engineer must create a computer model, then wait months for prototype tooling. 3D printing significantly reduces the wait time and cost.
The technology is not yet ready for primetime—that is, high-volume manufacturing. So Ford will stick to low-volume production for now. But the company plans to use the Stratasys machine to “help steer development of large-scale printing for automotive applications and requirements,” Lee said.