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With 3D Printing, Ford Prototypes Go from Mind to Model in a Matter of Hours
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December 27, 2012

With 3D Printing, Ford Prototypes Go from Mind to Model in a Matter of Hours

By Cheryl Kaften
TMCnet Contributor

Imagine if designing an object and constructing a prototype were as simple as sending an email? That’s what’s happening at Ford Motor Company (News - Alert) these days: New road-ready ideas go from mind to model in a matter of hours.

For example, recently at Ford’s Silicon Valley Lab, Research Engineer Dave Evans created a custom vehicle gauge and emailed the three-dimensional (3D) design to Research Engineer Zac Nelson at the company’s Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters. Nelson used the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic—developed and marketed by three-year-old Brooklyn-based MakerBot Industries— at his workstation to print up a physical prototype.

And voilà: The future of research and development has been demonstrated at the desks of these Ford engineers.

Called additive manufacturing or 3D printing, this technique offers great potential for use in the industry. As opposed to traditional fabrication techniques, which are “subtractive” and rely on the removal of materials by cutting or drilling to form a component, 3D printing is an “additive” method that creates objects by putting down layer after layer of material. (See Ford video.)

 Just like laser printers today, expect 3D printers to be commonplace tomorrow. Engineers throughout the industry will be able to visualize a design on a computer screen and have the physical prototype show up at a colleague’s desk on the other side of the country in minutes. With this capability, the most qualified experts in each domain can make changes that feed into a tangible model. They can then share a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) with the improvements.

Tangible benefits

“We’ve been shifting from the tangible world to the computer world, and the reality is that a hybrid model works best,” says K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader, Open Innovation, and a member of Ford’s Technology Advisory Board, Research and Innovation. “There is nothing like having a tangible prototype, but it has always been time consuming and expensive to create.

“Now, at the press of a button, you can have the product or component at your fingertips,” he adds. “With a model in one hand, you can then input your changes back into the computer model. The best decisions are made from the highest quality engineer and at the best pace.”

Currently thought of as a do-it-yourself tool for independent entrepreneurs and hobbyists, MakerBot enables users to design and produce products in various plastic materials. Ford is using this low-cost 3D printing in similar ways to other technology companies, mainly for small developments like shift knobs, gauges and display modules.

“We encourage our engineers to have the same entrepreneurial and creative spirit that started this movement,” says Prasad. “When we first got the machine, we made a scaled-down replica Model T and engineers have even made superheroes. We like that people are having fun with it and experimenting for it is that type of creativity that will lead to great uses and discoveries.”

Real-life applications

Ford is using 3D printing in the manufacturing world, bridging the gap between abstract and practical. Recently, many of the components for the 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine in the all-new Transit Van were developed with the aid of 3D rapid manufacturing. Cast aluminum oil filtration adaptors, exhaust manifolds, differential carrier, brake rotors, oil pan, differential case casting and even rear axles were prototyped with the technology, specifically utilizing selective laser sintering, stereolithography and 3D sand casting. 

Additionally, Ford is a leader in a new variation on this technology—3D printing with sand allows for the creation of casting patterns and cores with multiple printers in-house.

The technology enables engineers to quickly create a series of evolving testable pieces with slight variations to develop the absolute best vehicle for mass production. This results in improved efficiency and time to market, reduced time spent waiting on iterations and increased cost savings.

Examples of 3D sand printing include:

C-MAX, Fusion Hybrid: Rotor supports, transmission cases, damper housings and end covers for the new HF35 hybrid transmission built at Van Dyke Transmission Plant in suburban Detroit;

Escape: EcoBoost four-cylinder engines in the 2013 Escape built at Louisville Assembly Plant;

Explorer: Modified brake rotors for the 2011 Explorer built in Chicago (.to address a brake noise issue discovered in durability testing); and

F-150: Exhaust manifolds for the 3.5-liter EcoBoost built in Cleveland and used in F-150.

Where this could lead

In the not-so-distant future, if a part breaks on a homeowner’s refrigerator, he or she may be able to scan the barcode or a model number, take the information to an in-home rapid manufacturing machine, and actually print up a useable replacement piece. 

"Many have referenced this technology as ushering in a third industrial revolution,” says Harold Sears, Ford Additive Manufacturing technical specialist. “While that is yet to be determined, we do know manufacturing is continuing to go digital, the speed of these technologies is increasing, and the variety of materials is expanding. This all leads us to believe the potential of micro-manufacturing presents great opportunity for the manufacturing industry overall.”

Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli

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