Automotive manufacturer Ford has been incorporating 3D printing into its manufacturing procedures for years. Recently the company won three Automotive Innovation Awards for a 3D printed injection mold lifter action, a window alignment feature and an assembly lift assist. While those particular parts were not production parts, Ford is now attracting attention for another 3D printed part, this one to be used in the actual production of a vehicle – namely, the 2019 Ford Shelby Mustang GT 500.
Two 3D printed brackets will hold a brake line on the new Mustang – a brake line bracket breakthrough, you might call the development, as it demonstrates that 3D printed parts are viable as components in actual vehicles. The brackets and their manufacturing method will be showcased at the North American International Auto Show, which is taking place in Detroit in January.
Ford also recently opened a new $45 million Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, Michigan.
“More than 100 years ago, Ford created the moving assembly line, forever changing how vehicles would be mass-produced,” said Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s President of Global Operations. “Today, we are reinventing tomorrow’s assembly line – tapping technologies once only dreamed of on the big screen – to increase our manufacturing efficiency and quality.”
About 100 experts work at the facility, which Ford describes as a “development hub” for advanced technologies such as 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, robotics, digital manufacturing and more. The Advanced Manufacturing Center has 23 3D printers and is working with 10 3D manufacturing companies, allowing Ford to develop applications with different materials including sand, nylon and carbon. One application currently under development has the potential to save the company more than $2 million.
In addition to the Shelby Mustang GT500, the F-150 Raptor, built for China, also has a 3D printed interior part. Worldwide, Ford has 90 3D printers being used to produce parts and tools. 3D printers aren’t new to Ford – the company bought the third 3D printer ever made in 1988 – but its use of the technology has been steadily growing.
At the Advanced Manufacturing Center, Ford is also using augmented and virtual reality to help it simulate and design assembly lines to build millions of vehicles. Ford workers use specialized gaming equipment to configure a virtual production line, which allows them to identify potentially hazardous maneuvers and fine-tune workflows before an actual assembly line is constructed. Ford is also developing specialized augmented and virtual reality experiences to allow manufacturing teams to work together around the world.
Then there are the robots – or cobots, aka collaborative robots. More than 100 of them are currently working in Ford plants around the world. These robots are small and can safely work collaboratively with people, without protective cages. Using them in the Advanced Manufacturing Center helps Ford to identify and address potential production issues before the cobots are installed in plants.
“While we are increasing our use of collaborative robots, we strongly believe there is a need for both people and robots,” said Hinrichs. “People are better at doing certain jobs, while robots are able to perform certain tasks, including those that are ergonomically taxing for people.”
Automotive manufacturing is looking very different than it did 50 years ago, or even a few years ago. Manufacturing jobs aren’t necessarily disappearing, though – they’re just changing, and Ford is an example of how humans can work alongside technology to create better products.
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