3D Printing Paves Way for Custom Car Designs
Ford's F3T machine is controlled by a robot that tells it what 3D shape to create from a piece of 2D sheet metal.
CREDIT: Ford Motor Company
Cars, robots and 3D printers: Ford is combining all three of these cool toys into one high-tech car manufacturing process. Called Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T), it may pave the way for more innovative car designs and even let drivers choose their own custom car designs.
F3T uses computer aided design (CAD) files, just like 3D printing technologies. But unlike additive manufacturing processes that build up material like plastic or metal, the F3T machine presses flat sheet metal into three-dimensional car parts.
To accomplish this, Ford engineers use a computer program that translates their CAD files into a series of instructions, called "tool paths," that can be interpreted by the robot controlling the F3T machine.
The robot, in turn, tells the F3T machine's arms — each of which holds a giant stylus — what to do with the sheet metal. The styluses press down on the metal over and over again along the same path, creating grooves and, eventually, a 3D car part.
Ford can use F3T to make sheet metal parts for prototypes and customized car parts quickly and more affordably than they ever could with traditional, die manufacturing processes. [See also: Why 3D Printing Matters for 'Made in USA']
Die manufacturing requires that Ford design and construct dies, which are basically heavy metal molds, and then attach these dies to machines that stamp out sheet metal parts.
Matt Zaluzec, senior technical leader of Ford's research facility, said it can take weeks just to create one prototype part. The process of creating an entire concept car takes months, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In comparison, it takes just hours for an F3T robot to create a custom part.
Ford estimates that the F3T method is about 60 times faster than traditional the die-casting methods once used for prototyping. The company believes the new, faster method will help improve vehicle research and development (R&D) processes. And quicker R&D means greater flexibility and potentially greater innovation for Ford's designers and engineers.
The company said F3T might also allow Ford drivers to have greater control over the personalization of their vehicles, including the bodywork. (However, Ford has not provided any more details or examples.)
The F3T process, which is part of a three-year, $7 million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant to advance next-generation, energy-efficient manufacturing processes, is also expected to have broad application outside of the automotive industry. Ford believes it also can be used to further the aerospace, defense, transportation and appliance industries.
The DOE grant is just one of many government-sponsored grants and projects aimed at expanding the reach of 3D manufacturing around the U.S. In 2012, for example, the Department of Defense offered a $30 million grant to the university or other institution willing to house the Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute.