Could a Ford you purchase in the future have 3D-printed parts? Yes, if their current testing of the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer is successful. Recent advances in technology have seen more adoption of 3D printing than ever before, with Global Industry Analysts saying that by 2020, this global market could be worth a cool $9.6 billion.
3D printing is the darling of the manufacturing industry because of its affordability and efficiency, which are always increasing. For the automotive industry, the benefits are immense; with lighter 3D-printed parts comes greater fuel efficiency. In the concept car department, 3D printing is ideal for the production of low-volume parts, costing a fraction of the amount to produce parts in cast metal.
What’s All the Fuss About 3D?
In the traditional method of producing parts, a computer model of the part would need to be created by the engineer. Then, the model would need to be sent for prototype tooling, which can take several months to complete.
With 3D printing, part specifications are transferred directly from the computer’s design program to the computer in the 3D printer. Once it analyzes the design, it begins printing, layer by layer, until the part is complete.
Stratasys Brings Much to the Table
The Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer is still in its beta stage. However, this room-sized machine is already proving its ability to create some impressive objects. Unlike other 3D printers which print components in layers from the bottom up, the Infinite Build prints from the side. This gives it the ability to produce long and large objects in a single session, such as entire dashboards.
The robotic print head of the Infinite Build is able to rotate and move in three dimensions, which means that the printing of layers isn’t limited to flat slices. This is what allows the printer to be able to produce such a wide range of complex shapes.
The Infinite Build uses a combination of industrial robots and a print head for something called fused deposition modeling, or FDM. The material the Infinite Build uses to print is a sand-like micro-pellet powder made of thermoplastic. It’s fed along before being heated to liquefaction. Then, it shoots out from the print head according to whatever specifications it is printing to.
With the Infinite Build, there is no need to stop the machine or physically replace empty canisters of pellet powder; it is replaced automatically by a robotic arm. In fact, it requires so little human intervention that it can be left to print for hours or days.
The Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer that Ford is experimenting with represents a potential game-changer for the vehicle manufacturing industry as a whole. Not only is it able to print virtually any length or shape of any automotive or vehicle part, but because of this, could be able to produce customized parts for consumers.
This printer also brings several benefits to manufacturers, allowing them the ability to print even the tools used in parts production, as well as components and fixtures. Of course, because it’s still being tested, Ford’s engineers are still working on fine-tuning to ensure the best results, as well as ensuring the machine is being used to its full potential.
Background of the Stratasys Infinite Build
You may be wondering where Stratasys was before it appeared on the radar of manufacturers. Well, before it became a resident at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan, the Minnesota-based company worked with Boeing, where the focus was on the development of 3D-printed structures for aircraft. Stratasys has also been working with members of the medical community to search for additional applications for its technology.
What Successful Testing Means for Ford
If all goes well with Ford’s testing of the Stratasys Infinite Build, it could lead to the company being able to offer one or more new vehicle lines. They would also be able to branch out into the making of new upgrade options for consumers. In the concept, prototype and racing departments, Ford could soon be able to build components and perhaps even vehicles far more quickly than they can currently, and at far less of a cost.
What Successful Testing Means for the Consumer
Successful testing could mean that Ford has the ability to print virtually any kind of component, even those which are unique to a particular individual consumer or group of consumers.
These made-to-order niche products, which could eventually be offered by a local car dealer in Bloomington, could be truly outstanding, as this kind of 3D printing would not require the expensive building of molds for single or small batch usage; instead, customer-specific upgrades could be printed on request, or modifications even downloaded by the customer so they could design their own accessories.
In addition to having the choice of customized parts, consumers would also benefit from fuel savings. For example, a part like a spoiler on a vehicle may end up weighing less than half of its metal-casted counterpart. Therefore, the higher the number of 3D-printed parts on a vehicle, the less it will weigh overall, and the less fuel that would be required to get it from one location to another.
Other Benefits of 3D Printing
As time goes on and improvements in 3D printing technology continue, smaller 3D printers may be made available to dealerships and garages, where they may be able to print instead of order and wait for replacement parts. Imagine needing a part and only having to wait a few hours for it to be printed. This would drastically increase the efficiency and timeliness of repairs.
The Infinite Build’s ability to produce shapes that are highly complex may allow the company to optimize the way in which layers are printed. This could mean the ability to maximize properties like strength while lessening a component’s overall weight.
Ford Is Still Learning
The ins and outs of the Stratasys 3D Infinite Build printer are still being explored by the Ford research and development team. For example, in their journey to achieving high-quality printed parts, their engineers have discovered that surface quality is greatly impacted by the orientation of the product they are trying to print.
Other discoveries include the adjustment of print speed, air gap, and bead width to effect changes in the printed product. During this process, engineers are also learning much about the behavior of the Infinite Build; for example, the machine has been known to experience periods where a restart or reprinting of a section needs to occur. However, engineers know this is all part and parcel of working with a printer still in its prototype stage.
How Long Will Bloomington Ford Dealers Have to Wait?
3D printed vehicle parts and accessories may still be a long way from being placed on the next vehicle a consumer purchases. Once the printing process has been perfected, engineers will still need to test them in concept cars and development prototypes.
There is something to look forward to in the near future, however—it’s highly likely that race cars will soon be sporting 3D-printed spoilers and wings. As well, 3D-printed production aids like jigs and molds could soon be making their way into vehicle parts factories.
According to a statement on their corporate site, the company says it’s not new to 3D printing, having produced over 500,000 parts in the last few decades. Ford’s ability to 3D print various parts has not only saved them billions of dollars, but millions of work hours as well, which may also become true for car dealerships in Bloomington in the near future.
3D printing promises many efficiencies, including lighter weight parts, increased customization and shorter lead times, which will make Ford’s next few years very exciting to watch.