The car industry continues to evolve and be even more competitive than ever before. There is increasing pressure on auto makers to put out new models, with new options -faster, and even offer personalization of new vehicles. The modern consumer is a much different character than they were even 10 years ago.
The problem with developing new models, new concepts, niche lines, or customization, is that the volume manufacturing process itself is not designed with rapid changes in mind. In the past, to make a single new part, often molds, or new tooling would have to be made. This tooling, needed to make prototype parts that may not ever see production is expensive and time consuming to construct.
On a recent visit to Ford’s Dearborn Development Center, we had a chance to see how Ford is using rapid prototyping technologies to change the way new parts are built and tested. It is now possible to create 3-D models of virtually any vehicle part from plastic via 3D printing. On display at the event were an intake and cylinder head casting models that could be used for testing and prototyping purposes. The intake manifold, in this instance for a four-cylinder engine, could even be bolted to a running engine and used for testing purposes, while the cylinder head models could be used to examine various characteristics of a design, and ultimately used to help create the final casting patterns.
The technology goes further than that though, for enthusiasts imagine one-off parts for interior, exterior, or even the engine. These parts could be built from plastic in a matter of hours. Currently Ford has access to 3D printing technology capable of creating parts as big as the dash or bumper for an F-150 pickup.
While not shown to us at Dearborn, the other advanced technology Ford recently showed off is the F3T sheet metal technology. With sheet-metal parts typically a piece must be stamped from dies that weigh thousands of pounds. Manufacturers spend millions on these dies each year, and each one can take six weeks or more to produce. While this type of process is effective when building tens or hundreds of thousands of vehicles per year, it is not when prototyping parts for a new concept or idea, where the needed part is often not the final production version.
F3T changes that, using CAD and CNC type technology a stylus literally forms a piece of sheetmetal in hours. While this is not an effective plan for mass production where parts are formed in seconds, it is effective for engineers designing new parts or models for testing. Both from a cost and time perspective, if an engineer can have a part in a couple of hours or even a few days, at a small cost when compared to creating the expensive tooling for a new part, not only does it reduce the cost to develop a new mode, design, or technology, but also the time lag for those pieces.
Going back to the enthusiast angle, the F3T could be used to build parts for niche models like a Ford halo car, or even components for a high end production car model like the GT500. We see other opportunities for this technology as well, custom sheet-metal or one off body parts for enthusiasts.
Imagine the technology as well making it’s way to the aftermarket. Steel custom body parts, vs plastic or fiberglass with custom touches that are easily added. Reproduction sheet metal parts of hard to find body panels or panel sections. The possibilities are nearly endless.
With investments in technology to advance the development process of parts and prototypes, Ford is setting themselves up to continue to develop parts and technologies to meet consumer demands, and to set trends in the auto industry.