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3D printing technology helps Ford make prototype and production parts

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Ford Motor Company says millions of car parts may someday be printed as fast as newspapers, which could save months of development time and millions of dollars.

But not just yet.

3D printing has captured the imagination of people across the country as stories about 3D printed pistols, rifles and other items appear in the news. Ford has some serious plans for 3D printing in terms of rapid prototyping and possible future production.

How does 3D printing work?
3D printing works by printing one thin layer at a time from plastic, sand or other material, then gradually stacking the layers and building a finished piece to create a 3D object, similar to assembling a spool of CDs.

Today, 3D printing is not fast enough for high-volume direct production manufacturing, but it is perfect for prototype parts that go through frequent development changes.

More creativity, faster prototypes
3D printing allows engineers to experiment with more radical, innovative part designs inexpensively and quickly. This cuts development time and gives engineers flexibility.

For example, using traditional methods, a prototype of a complex part like an engine intake manifold could take four months and cost up to $500,000 to produce. With 3D printing, Ford says they can “print” the same part in four days at a cost of $3,000. That’s serious time and cost savings.

3D future
Ford wants to someday print production parts in metal, rather than just plastic, for prototypes. According to Ford, the company has been at the forefront of 3D printing for 25 years and was involved with the invention of 3D printing in the 1980s.

Ford uses selective laser sintering, fused deposition modeling and stereolithography 3D printing applications. Ford also works with suppliers to bring more technologies to market, including 3D sand printing. Some examples of Ford’s use of 3D sand printing of prototype parts include:

  • Engine cover for new Ford Mustang
  • Rotor supports, transmission cases, damper housings and end covers for new HF35 hybrid transmission for Ford C-MAX Hybrid, Fusion Hybrid
  • Four-cylinder EcoBoost® engines for new Ford Fusion
  • Brake rotors for Ford Explorer
  • Exhaust manifolds for 3.5-liter EcoBoost in Ford F-150

Where will this all lead?
Digital manufacturing technologies like 3D printing and robotics are evolving rapidly. As they do, the speed of these technologies increases and the variety of materials expands. And costs go down.

Imagine going to your local Ford dealer for a repair. Instead of ordering the part from a parts depot, the parts department prints the part. Or maybe you print the part yourself at home.

Does that seem far fetched? Perhaps, but advances in technology have already made it possible for robots to perform complex manufacturing and precision assembly operations that until recently seemed destined to remain manual. 3D printing was largely unknown to the general public until recently and seemed to be the stuff of science fiction.

If the current pace of 3D printing development is any indication, look for 3D printers to be on sale next to the big screen TVs at your local Best Buy or Costco within a few years.

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