Ford's experiments with 3D printer technology appear to be going well -- as the automaker says it could save millions in the production expenses of new cars, as well as boost overall quality.
The automaker says that 3D printing is becoming an important element of its production lines, as parts are printed out for use in prototypes and testing to give engineers additional time to seek out flaws and make improvements for new models. However, Ford wants to go further -- and begin to mix material applications, continuous 3D sand printing and direct metal printing for our future transport.
Ford says that one day, printing and creating millions of parts could be achieved as quickly as printing out a newspaper, saving months of development time and money.
When it boils down to Ford's production process, traditionally, an engineer would need to create a computer model of an intake manifold -- the most complicated engine part -- and wait about four months for one prototype at a cost of $500,000. However, by using 3D printing, Ford can print the same part in four days at a cost of $3,000.
Ford says that the technology saves millions of dollars, as it removes the need for special tooling and dedicated molds -- which become useless as designs change. In addition, this allows engineers more time to experiment with more radical designs quickly and without huge expense.
"Today, 3D printing is not fast enough for the high-volume direct production manufacturing we do," said Harold Sears, a Ford additive manufacturing technical specialist. "But it is ideal for test parts, or niche production applications, that go through frequent development changes."
The most recent examples of Ford's use of 3D printing include an engine cover for the Ford Mustang, four-cylinder EcoBoost engines for the Fusion, and rotor supports, transmission cases, damper housings and end covers for parts used in the Ford C-Max Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid.
The car manufacturer is currently looking at ways to print production parts in metal, rather than just plastic, for prototypes.
"Many have referenced this technology as ushering in a third industrial revolution," said Sears. "While that is yet to be determined, what we do know is manufacturing is continuing to go digital, the speed of these technologies is increasing and the variety of materials is expanding -- all of which leads us to believe 3D printing presents a great opportunity for overall manufacturing."
Ford may be trying to cut costs in the supply chain, but is also on the charge to launch 23 new vehicles in the United States and Asia next year. The company says it will be the fastest expansion in 50 years, and will require the hiring of an additional 11,000 workers.
Image credit: Ford