3D Systems Corporation
No stranger toÂ the technology.
âWe at Ford have been using additive manufacturing for over 25 years,â EllenÂ Lee, Team Leader, Additive Manufacturing Research, Ford Motor Co. says.
Admittedly, much of the early work wasÂ done on the classic rapid prototyping application, the creation of models. But subsequently, the applications have expanded in scope, as has the array of equipment that they have on hand to produce modelsâand parts.
âWe do have a considerable array ofÂ commercial- and professional-gradeÂ equipment,â Lee says. They have selective laser sintering (SLS), stereolitho-graphy (SLA), fused deposition modeling (FDM), and direct-metal power printing.
Of the last, Lee says that most of those metal printers are in Europe, althoughÂ they are starting to use the technologyÂ in North America.
âWe also have some binder jet printingÂ of sand where we have produced sand testing molds to make prototypes.â
What are they making?
âMost of the prototypes are plastics.Â Some are printed metal. Some are cast-ings made with a printed sand mold.
âWe do a lot of models for new pro-grams and concept vehicles. But there are a large number of parts built that are functional and go to our racing pro-grams, where we need just oneÂ or two.
âWe print a lot of air intake manifolds that can be put onto vehicles. Itâs forÂ testing, but theyâre still quite functional. They can be put on dynamometers for 100,000 miles or so. Theyâre quite durable.â
Why do they do it?
Pretty much the usual reason.
âThere are a lot of designs that weÂ need to look at. To cut an injectionÂ mold takes quite a lot of time and is costly,â Lee says.
What are they doingÂ to advance the tech?
âThis year we created a research program in additive manufacturing.â
Through this, Lee and her colleagues are âseeing a lot of new technologies that will have a great impact on manufacturing for automotive.â
Thereâs the key phrase.
Sure, everyone knows about theÂ use of additive for printing products like turbine blades for aerospaceÂ and knees for medical. But in these (and related) instances, the volumesÂ are much, much lower than in automotive.
Lee says that one of the inhibitors to additive manufacturing is the cycleÂ time of the process versus the cycleÂ time for an existing process, like injection molding. âToday, looking at the technologies available right now,Â it is really tough for high-volume, mass-produced parts.â
But she notes that in their research program theyâre looking at some new and emerging technologies that may address the issue of speed. (Not surprisingly, Lee doesnât share what these technologies are.)
Another inhibitor she citesââa bigÂ oneââis materials.
âUnlike aerospace or medical applications,â Lee says, âautomotive has quite a number of more material types of interest that we might consider or like to have. So it is important to expand the number of material options.â
So in the Ford additive program, theyâre working with an array of interestsâestablished materials companies, start-ups, government labs, and universitiesâto help develop more materials that would be appropriateÂ for automotive application.
A royal problem
There is another materials-related con-cern that Lee expresses vis-Ã -vis the greater use of additive manufacturing.
âIn automotive, we use a large number of plastic and composite materials, and price is king for us.â
But hereâs the rub: generally, additive equipment manufacturers supply the materials that are used on their machines. Consequently, Lee explains, it doesnât help the cost equation when there is a single source for materials, the manufacturer of the machine.
She says, however, that as there is growing interest among general manufacturers who use a numberÂ of materials and who like to haveÂ more than one supplier there is likely to be an understanding on the parts of equipment manufacturers who will recognize that theyâre going to need to increase the number of available materials, which should help reduce the costs.
How to compete on something not direct cycle time
Lee observes: âAn instrument panel is usually made out of a polyolefin, polypropylene, which is not a material that can be printed but injection molded in about a minute.â
So two issues: (1) a material is usedÂ for a part that isnât printable; (2) the cycle time is a fraction of what printing would require.
How can this be overcome?
Lee answers, âI donât think whatÂ we want to do is compete part byÂ part with the same design.â SheÂ thinks that it is important that partsÂ be designed not with injection molding or machining or stamping orÂ other conventional processes inÂ mind, but to be produced with additive.
âIt may be that we totally change the design and geometry to get the function we need out of it but while we consolidate many parts together. We may have geometries that canât be molded that reduce weight and integrate a lot of function.
âThen if you start comparing thatÂ with the cycle time or overall time to make that assembly of parts, youâll be able to start competing. And if you improve the quality overall because of this new design, you donât have to meet the short cycle time.â
Simply stated: A holistic view that takes into account what can be functionally realized through additive may make it more competitive when comparing that component with what is necessary to do in order to achieve the same with conventional processes.
A bright outlook
One of the big challenges in automotive is mass reduction. âIf you look at what additive manufacturing is really good at, weight reduction might be something that you really zero in on.â She explains that it is possible to create geometries that minimize weight without affecting performance through additive, geometries that canât be readily achieved otherwise because of process limitations.
âIf we concentrate on those types of applications in the short term, then there is good potential to improve quality of product. Then, as cycle times and materials improve, we will have more applications.â
Lee says, âI really believe that the technology is going to advance very quickly in this field because there is so much interest in it and potential for things like customization or special geometries that are not physically possible with a mold. Those are two areas we are looking at to exploit.â
She adds, âThinking about how quickly the technologies have been advancing in the last couple years, there will probably be things out in the marketÂ in five years we canât imagine.â
Which is saying a lot, given the generation-long experience that Ford Motor has had with the technology.Â