Ford begins large-scale 3D printing trial

Ford workers print car parts using a Stratasys 3D printer. Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company
Ford workers print car parts using a Stratasys 3D printer. Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company

US automotive manufacturer Ford Motor Company this week announced plans to begin testing the production of large-scale parts using 3D-printing.

To do this, Ford is partnering with Stratasys, one of the US’s largest 3D printing manufacturers.

Ford will use a Stratasys Infinite Build 3D-printer in order to print a large number of parts, some more than a meter in size.

The printer itself is designed for commercial and industrial use, able to print objects of almost infinite length out of lightweight thermoplastic.

The company believes that into the future this technology will help them speed up their manufacturing process and allow for innovative new designs.

“With Infinite Build technology, we can print large tools, fixtures and components, making us more nimble in design iterations,” said Ellen Lee, Ford technical leader, additive manufacturing research.

“We’re excited to have early access to Stratasys’ new technology to help steer development of large-scale printing for automotive applications and requirements.”

Specifically, they believe that the new 3D-printed car parts would be able to be used as prototypes to test a number of designs in mass market vehicles.

As well, Ford sees 3D-printed parts also being used extensively in limited-run and more high-end vehicles produced by the company.

In such use cases, the easy customizability of the 3D printed parts means that a customer (or car designer) could order a unique aesthetic piece for their vehicle, which would still fit in seamlessly with the regular car body.

In the near term, Ford believes parts like spoilers could be one of the first applications of this 3D-printing technology.

Beyond the customizability, 3D printing had two over main advantages over traditional manufacturing.

Firstly it is considerably cheaper than traditional manufacturing, as expensive molds and tooling do not need to be used in part manufacturing.

Secondly, the thermoplastic material used by the Stratasys printer is considerably lighter than the metal currently used for many car parts and thus can deliver significant weight and fuel efficiency savings.