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Inside Ford's 3D Printing Lab, where thousands of parts are made

Lucas Mearian | June 5, 2014
Many of the nylon printed motor parts are used in working prototype vehicles.

Ford's 3D printers range from something the size of a large refrigerator to a small truck. The 3D printers range in price from $250,000 to high six figures.

While 3D printing is relatively new to the consumer market, manufacturers like Ford have been using it for nearly 30 years. In the mid-1980s, Ford went live with what was only the industry's third stereo lithography 3D printing machine.

laser sintering
A block of powdered silica hides what can be 100 prototype parts printed with laser sintering technology.

A prototype interior door panel
Computerworld reporter Lucas Mearian pulls a prototype interior door panel part from the block of powdered silica.

Today, Ford makes use of nearly a half dozen types of 3D printing methods, including stereo lithography (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS), fused deposition modeling (FDM) and a lesser-known process known as binder jet printing, where layer after layer of sand are epoxied together to create molds for metal parts.

Of Ford's five 3D prototyping centers, three are in the U.S. and two are in Europe. At its Dearborn Heights, Mich. facility, 14 different industrial 3D printers turn out 20,000 parts a year. A single print run on one machine can create anywhere from a few parts to hundreds.

For example, in its laser-sintering lab, several machines perform rapid prototyping of parts by melting hundreds to thousands of successive layers of fine silica together. What emerges from the printer is an amorphous block of powdered silica from which dozens of hardened parts are removed by hand and cleaned with a brush and vacuum.

Some of the prototype parts created, 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 working vehicles, which are then driven tens of thousands of miles to test them for production. Test results are used to modify the production parts.

Ford's Harold Sears shows off an engine air intake manifold created by 3D printing.

Similarly, in the 3D Sand Printing Lab, binder jet printing machines churn out large bins filled with 100 or more molds into which molten metal will later be poured to make metal prototypes. A single binder jet print run can take as little as a week to as much as a month, depending on the job size and deadline. Conventional sand molds would take eight to 10 weeks, Sears said.

"We're improving quality too. We're giving engineers the ability to optimize their time. They've still got a deadline, but we're giving them better tools to make sure it's done right," Sears said.


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