Ford Now Operates 3-D Printers Autonomously with the Help of Roving Robot

Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn announced that Javier, a robot on wheels from supplier KUKA, is used to operate the company’s 3-D printers completely on its own, increasing efficiency and reducing the cost of the essential process.
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Ford Motor Co. now operates its 3D printers autonomously with the help of the roving robot called Javier from supplier KUKA. // Courtesy of Ford
Ford Motor Co. now operates its 3-D printers autonomously with the help of the roving robot called Javier from supplier KUKA. // Courtesy of Ford

Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn announced that Javier, a robot on wheels from supplier KUKA, is used to operate the company’s 3-D printers completely on its own, increasing efficiency and reducing the cost of the essential process.

“This new process has the ability to change the way we use robotics in our manufacturing facilities,” says Jason Ryska, director, global manufacturing technology development at Ford. “Not only does it enable Ford to scale its 3-D printer operations, it extends into other aspects of our manufacturing processes — this technology will allow us to simplify equipment and be even more flexible on the assembly line.”

The robot is integral to the company’s development of an industry-first process to operate 3-D carbon printers with an autonomous mobile robot rather than a fixed, stationary unit. Ford has achieved great accuracy with Javier, using his feedback to significantly reduce margins of error. In addition to 3-D printers, the method can be applied to a vast array of robots already working at the company to increase efficiency and reduce cost.

During the creation of this process, Ford has filed several patents related to the overall process, communication interfaces, and precise positioning of the robot, which does not require use of a camera vision system to “see.”

Typically, different pieces of equipment from various suppliers are unable to interact because they do not run the same communication interface. Ford developed an application interface program that allows different pieces of equipment to “speak the same language,” and send constant feedback to each other.

For example, the carbon 3-D printer tells the KUKA autonomous mobile robot when the printed product will be finished, then the robot lets the printer know the robot has arrived and is ready for pick-up. This innovative communication is what makes the whole process possible.

Javier enables Ford to operate its 3-D printers all night long, even after employees have left for the day. Not only does this increase throughput, but it also reduces the cost of custom-printed products. Ford has used the printer to make low-volume, custom parts, such as a brake line bracket for the performance package-equipped Mustang Shelby GT500.

While the process itself is autonomous, Ford operators are responsible for uploading 3-D designs to the printer and maintaining the machinery, and for engineering new ways to use the technology.

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