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.
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