Materials science is also a key portion of Ford's 3D printing effort. The company is constantly seeking materials that will enable stronger, lighter weight vehicle components.
Some of the composites used in 3D printing have specific strengths close to that of steel, according to Lee, who is responsible for the development and implementation of novel materials, processes and applications of 3D printing at the automaker.
For example, the Ford Research and Innovation Center is experimenting with combining carbon fiber filament with Nylon 6 on a 3D printer from start-up Mark Forged.
As materials are evaluated and vetted, they go to Ford's manufacturing division where engineers determine how to include them in the manufacturing process, Lee said.
"We're really concentrating on how we can get them [materials] for end-use products... so, production-level starting at low volume but then hopefully progressing to medium and high volumes as well," Lee continued. "We want something that's strong enough and durable enough to last the lifetime of the vehicle."
3D printing also lends itself to being able to product complex geometric structures that can vastly reduce the weight of parts while still providing either strength or other attributes, such as flexibility or impact resistance.
Ford is experimenting with a stereolithography 3D printer from the company Carbon to create high-resolution parts prototypes made with honeycomb or lattice structures for lighter weight.
"When we're talking about on the manufacturing floor, we have a lot of great examples where we can be much more efficient with ergonomic designs and lightweight structures where those structures can be less than half the weight of conventionally made parts," Lee said.
Piloting Stratasys' Infinite Build 3d Demonstrator
One machine Ford is piloting looks more like the disembodied arm of a Transformer robot than a 3D printer. The Stratasys Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator is the size of a small car and can be used for producing large tools and production parts with greater speed than traditional fused deposition modeling technology. The size of the parts produced by the Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator is only limited by size of the manufacturing floor because it prints horizontally instead of vertically.
Ford has used the 3D Demonstrator to construct prototype single-component instrument panels and center vehicle consoles. But the machine could be used to construct prototype vehicle body panels as well.
While Sears and Lee agree 3D printing won't be used to produce a million production parts for the assembly line anytime soon, they do believe the technology will see uptake in the development and production process across new industries.
Advice on using 3D printing
One word of advice Sears has for companies still considering the adoption of 3D printing: avoid trying to plug the technology into existing processes.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.