Ford Tests Large-Scale 3-D Printing for Light-Weighting, Prototypes

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Ford Motor Co. is the first automaker to use a 3-D printer, exploring how one-piece auto parts, like spoilers, can be printed for prototyping and future production vehicles.

Made by Stratasys Ltd., a 3-D printer industry giant based in Minnesota, is capable of printing automotive parts any shape or length, and could provide a more efficient and affordable way to create tooling, prototype parts for low volume vehicles, and personalized car parts.

“With Infinite Build technology, we can print large tools, fixtures and components, making us more nimble in design iterations,” says Ellen Lee, Ford technical leader for additive manufacturing research. “We’re excited to have early access to Stratasys’ new technology to help steer development of large-scale printing for automotive applications and requirements.”

Lee says while traditional production methods require an engineer to create a computer model of the part and then wait months for prototype production, 3-D printing will allow Ford to create the product in a few days, leading to a significant cost reduction. Lee says 3-D printing could mean “immense benefits” for automotive production, including the ability to produce lighter-weight parts, which could lead to greater fuel efficiency. A 3-D printed spoiler, for example, could weigh less than half its cast metal counterpart. Additionally, Ford might use the technology to make larger tooling and fixtures, as well as personalized components.

Lee also says although the process is not yet fast enough for high-volume production, as 3-D printing becomes increasingly efficient and affordable, companies are employing it for manufacturing applications in fields ranging from aerospace, education, and medicine. With recent technological advances, areas of application, and government support, industry experts expect the global market for 3-D printing to be $9.6 billion by 2020.

The new 3-D printer is housed at Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn.

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