"Have they really re-thought and redesigned the parts to take advantage of the strengths of additive manufacturing or are they just trying to produce the same part they were using with injection molding; if they are, it's probably not going to see the benefits they would see if it was completely re-thought," Sears said.
"It's really looking at whether you have the ability to re-design your products – to make your products more efficient," Sears continued. "Is there the ability to take a 20-part assembly and redesign it into one part or two parts?"
Companies that have yet to purchase a 3D printer should also take advantage of service providers, such as Shapeways and Sculpteo, who can take CAD designs and print the prototypes using in-house expertise and a cadre of machines that smaller firms may not be able to afford.
Some 3D printer makers, such as Stratasys, also offer cloud-based printing services, including production parts manufacturing.
While 3D printing may not be used for mass manufacturing at Ford, its place in helping to produce production parts continues to grow.
"There are so many exciting things happening," Lee said. "...The existing processes we use are really only able to support our low volume applications if we're talking production parts. Today, there are some technologies that are just emerging that have a lot of potential. What we want to do here in research is to get access early on to help steer those companies to develop those technologies for automotive industry needs."
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