3D Printing Enhances Lightweighting & Personalization in Automotive Manufacture as Ford Pilots Stratasys’ Infinite Build 3D Printer

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Stratasys’ Infinite Build 3D Demonstrator at IMTS 2016 [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

Automotive and aerospace are two industries that are significantly benefiting from 3D printing technologies, and it was in fact with these two applications in mind that Stratasys announced the development of its 3D Demonstrators that first debuted at IMTS back in September. Along with aerospace giant Boeing, Ford Motor Company was noted to be working closely with Stratasys in the system’s development upon the initial announcement of the technologies in August.

“3D printing holds the promise of changing automotive design and manufacturing because it opens up new ways to innovate and create efficiencies in production. Our vision at Ford is to make high-speed, high-quality printing of automotive-grade parts a reality. We are excited about the future opportunities that the scalable and versatile Infinite-Build concept can unlock, and look forward to collaborating with Stratasys to help achieve our goals,” Mike Whitens, director, Vehicle Enterprise Sciences, Ford Research & Advanced Engineering, said in August.

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Stratasys 3D printing technology in use at Ford’s Dearborn, MI plant [Photo: Ford]

No stranger to additive manufacturing efforts, Ford has been exploring options in advanced manufacturing techniques for some time now. The company has used 3D printing to prototype parts for the 2017 GT and 2016 Mondeo Vignale, and worked with Carbon’s high-speed CLIP 3D printing process to create elastomer grommets for use in its Focus Electric vehicles, as well as developing new resins. Ford, which has long seen 3D printing the future of the automotive industry, has even been using 3D printing in the tools used to bring its vehicles to production. With the development of Stratasys’ large-scale 3D printing systems, Ford is set to explore additional avenues of bringing this technology into use in its extensive production efforts.

Key among the offerings of the Infinite Build system in particular are its effectively unlimited part size production capabilities, as it prints on a vertical plane. Ford has been providing Stratasys with feedback throughout the development process, as the motor giant looks toward lightweighting and personalization offerings for its automotive line. The company is the first in the automotive industry to test this Stratasys technology, with an eye to the future of production of vehicles in its Ford Performance line as well as for car parts personalized for owners. Among the components that could immediately benefit from 3D printing technology are large one-piece parts, such as spoilers, which when 3D printed can cut down on a metal-cast part by more than half in terms of weight.

As we see time and time again, the ability of 3D design to take components traditionally manufactured in several parts and reduce this to a single or just a few pieces cuts down on time and assembly, as well as material use and weight — all important considerations in vehicular design, where cutting back on total weight and thus enhancing fuel efficiency is always a goal at hand. 3D printing furthermore offers time benefits in terms of rapid prototyping, the original and still a key use of the technology, speeding up the design process significantly as prototype parts are able to be created in-house at a fraction of the time and cost of traditional outsourced prototyping. These same benefits expand to low-volume production parts, such as those seen in low-run vehicles such as race cars — an area where Ford has of course long been involved.

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[Photo: Ford]

Ford is working with the Infinite Build technology at its Dearborn, Michigan Research and Innovation Center. In addition to prototyping, low-volume production components, and personalized offerings, Ford is set to use the technology to create larger tooling and fixtures. The Infinite Build system is able to automatically detect an empty raw material or supply material canister, using a robotic arm to change out the empty for a full canister to allow for uninterrupted, unattended operation said to extend for hours or days at a time.

“With the Infinite Build technology, we are now able to print large tools, fixtures, and components, making us more nimble in design iterations. We’re excited to have early access to Stratasys’ new technology in order to help steer the development of large scale printing for automotive applications and requirements,” said Ford technical leader for additive manufacturing research Ellen Lee.

At formnext in November, Stratasys explained their dedication to the reality of additive manufacturing in today’s world. There, I listened to executives from the company, led by Andy Middleton, President of Stratasys EMEA, and company CEO Ilan Levin, as they highlighted their demonstrators and underscored the critical nature of partnerships in their vision for the future. With Boeing and Ford proving key collaborators in the Infinite Build Demonstrator, Stratasys also announced use cases for the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrator and announced a major partnership with Siemens.

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Andy Middleton speaking at formnext [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

“We are smart in developing technology,” Middleton said at formnext. “Our customers are much smarter than we are in developing applications.”He continued, “It’s no longer sustainable to build a product, release a technology to market and hope the customers will figure out what to do with it. The companies that become leaders will be those who realize that it’s a joint effort. Going forward, you will see that leading companies such as Stratasys will only continue to lead when we encourage this level of intimacy with our users.”

“There’s a lot more smart people outside of Stratasys than inside of Stratasys. Partnering up will be our way of the future. The days of one-size-fits-all in the 3D printing world are days of the past. We will be and are currently delivering customized solutions for specific applications.”

The work currently being done at Ford shows a tangible step forward for the collaboration, as Stratasys gains insight and understanding of how its technology is being put to use in real-world conditions, and Ford is able to put the capabilities to a real test — and with, perhaps, some exciting steps forward in their own production lines. Discuss in the Infinite Build forum at 3DPB.com.

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