DEARBORN, Mich. -- If you were to put the brakes on 3D printing technology at Ford today, the company's vehicle development would literally come to a screeching halt.
Additive manufacturing at the automaker has evolved from being a niche technology a few engineers toyed with 20 years ago to its integration in the R&D process 10 years ago to the "entrenched" development process it is now.
"We touch a significant portion of the vehicle with 3D printing now," said Harold Sears, technical expert of rapid manufacturing technologies with Ford's manufacturing division. "We're prototyping virtually everything [using 3D printing] from road to roof."
How much of a digital transformation has 3D printing brought to Ford? A little more than a decade ago, Ford 3D-printed perhaps 4,000 prototype parts for its vehicles. Today, the automaker's five 3D prototyping centers churns out more than 100,000 parts annually. In the future, additive manufacturing (3D printing) will likely be used to construct a least a portion of production parts on vehicles, Sears said.
More companies embrace 3D printing
A 2016 survey of 100 top manufacturers by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) revealed that 71% are using 3D printing, some for rapid prototyping and others for production or custom parts.
Over the next three to five years, 52% of manufacturers surveyed expect 3D printing to be used for high-volume production compared to two years ago, when only 38% thought the same. Sixty-seven percent of the companies surveyed believe 3D printing will be used for low-volume, specialized products within five years.
Global spending on printers hit $11 billion in 2015 and is forecast to reach about $27 billion by 2019, according to IDC.
The global 3D printed metals market alone is expected to be valued at $12 billion in 2028, according to a new report from IDTechEx.
Direct metal laser sintering remains the dominant printer technology by total installed base, with an 84% market share at the end of last year; the remainder of the market is fragmented across the other three major alternatives: Electron Beam Melting (EBM), Directed Energy Deposition (DED) and Binder Jetting.
Ford has increased its use of metal materials for 3D printing with the hope of making both more usable prototypes and "niche applications that may go beyond prototypes," Sears said.
Additive manufacturing has become an integral part of manufacturing among industries such as aerospace and automotive because it streamlines development, increases the quality of parts and cuts time and costs exponentially.
Saving time with prototypes
"If we're looking at prototyping a part, 3D printing can save us in the development time it takes by orders of magnitude – maybe one-tenth of the time as compared to making a tool to then make a prototype part," said Ellen Lee, Ford's additive manufacturing research technical leader.
A prototype part that would have taken weeks to make using traditional methods can now be made in days with 3D printing. "If it would have taken months to make it, it's probably made in weeks today," Sears said.
One of the ways Ford engineers have applied 3D printing to help accelerate and improve parts development is by producing multiple copies of a prototype at the same time, each with a unique feature.
In the past, using CNC lathing machines, engineers had make one part at a time – and for many companies, those prototype parts had to be sent to a third party to be made.
"Traditionally, you would have designed a part, made a tool; made the part; tested the part. Depending on the results, you'd modify the tool again, make another part; test another part," Sears said. "Many engineers come to us today with five, six, seven different iterations of a part at the same time and say, 'Here, make all these parts.' So, we make all of them at the same time."
With multiple prototype parts available at the same time, Ford can also perform parallel testing, which saves it from waiting weeks between evaluating each part singly.
Different techniques, different results
While Sears would not disclose how many 3D printers Ford has at each of its five sites, but they include every type of additive manufacturing technology – from fused deposition modeling and liquid polymer-based stereolithography to direct laser metal sintering and binder jet or sand-mold printing.
Many engineers also get desktop 3D printers to build initial prototypes.
Binder jet 3D printing is especially useful for the automaker, where layer after layer of sand is epoxied together to create a form into which molten materials are poured to form the part.
Using binder-jet 3D printers the size of a small shipping container, up to 300 sand-based molds can be created in a single job; the molds can then be used to create metal prototype parts; a process that used to take up to 10 weeks now takes only about 40 hours.
There is virtually no 3D printing technology available that Ford will not test at its Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn.
In 2017, several companies launched new printer technologies with the promise of overcoming some of the existing barriers to adoption, such as lower printer prices, faster build speeds and cheaper materials, according to IDTechEx's new report.
Some of the prototype parts created at Ford, such as engine air intake manifolds and oil pans, are made with special nylon. Those nylon parts are often used to replace conventional parts on test vehicles, which are then driven tens of thousands of miles. Test results are used to modify the production parts.
Materials science is also a key portion of Ford's 3D printing effort. The company is constantly seeking materials that will enable stronger, lighter weight vehicle components.
Some of the composites used in 3D printing have specific strengths close to that of steel, according to Lee, who is responsible for the development and implementation of novel materials, processes and applications of 3D printing at the automaker.
For example, the Ford Research and Innovation Center is experimenting with combining carbon fiber filament with Nylon 6 on a 3D printer from start-up Mark Forged.
As materials are evaluated and vetted, they go to Ford's manufacturing division where engineers determine how to include them in the manufacturing process, Lee said.
"We're really concentrating on how we can get them [materials] for end-use products... so, production-level starting at low volume but then hopefully progressing to medium and high volumes as well," Lee continued. "We want something that's strong enough and durable enough to last the lifetime of the vehicle."
3D printing also lends itself to being able to product complex geometric structures that can vastly reduce the weight of parts while still providing either strength or other attributes, such as flexibility or impact resistance.
Ford is experimenting with a stereolithography 3D printer from the company Carbon to create high-resolution parts prototypes made with honeycomb or lattice structures for lighter weight.
"When we're talking about on the manufacturing floor, we have a lot of great examples where we can be much more efficient with ergonomic designs and lightweight structures where those structures can be less than half the weight of conventionally made parts," Lee said.
Piloting Stratasys' Infinite Build 3d Demonstrator
One machine Ford is piloting looks more like the disembodied arm of a Transformer robot than a 3D printer. The Stratasys Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator is the size of a small car and can be used for producing large tools and production parts with greater speed than traditional fused deposition modeling technology. The size of the parts produced by the Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator is only limited by size of the manufacturing floor because it prints horizontally instead of vertically.
Ford has used the 3D Demonstrator to construct prototype single-component instrument panels and center vehicle consoles. But the machine could be used to construct prototype vehicle body panels as well.
While Sears and Lee agree 3D printing won't be used to produce a million production parts for the assembly line anytime soon, they do believe the technology will see uptake in the development and production process across new industries.
Advice on using 3D printing
One word of advice Sears has for companies still considering the adoption of 3D printing: avoid trying to plug the technology into existing processes.
"Have they really re-thought and redesigned the parts to take advantage of the strengths of additive manufacturing or are they just trying to produce the same part they were using with injection molding; if they are, it's probably not going to see the benefits they would see if it was completely re-thought," Sears said.
"It's really looking at whether you have the ability to re-design your products – to make your products more efficient," Sears continued. "Is there the ability to take a 20-part assembly and redesign it into one part or two parts?"
Companies that have yet to purchase a 3D printer should also take advantage of service providers, such as Shapeways and Sculpteo, who can take CAD designs and print the prototypes using in-house expertise and a cadre of machines that smaller firms may not be able to afford.
Some 3D printer makers, such as Stratasys, also offer cloud-based printing services, including production parts manufacturing.
While 3D printing may not be used for mass manufacturing at Ford, its place in helping to produce production parts continues to grow.
"There are so many exciting things happening," Lee said. "...The existing processes we use are really only able to support our low volume applications if we're talking production parts. Today, there are some technologies that are just emerging that have a lot of potential. What we want to do here in research is to get access early on to help steer those companies to develop those technologies for automotive industry needs."
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