Three-dimensional (3D) printing is taking the world by storm, but it’s not as new as you might think. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D 'printing' was invented by Hideo Kodama at Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute in 1981, with a patent filed in 1984.
While the process was far different to what we have on the market and in industry today, we have seen many applications printed, from body parts, shoes, to even guns. But, car companies are now getting on board.
Ford Motor Company have announced it's the first automaker to use the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer, which is able to process large car parts, such as a six-foot rear spoiler. The printer is room-sized and works far quicker than the conventional home-based 3D printer.
The CarAdvice podcast team interviewed Ellen Lee, the Ford technical leader for additive manufacturing research, from Michigan, to find out more. (Prefer to listen? You'll find the audio at the bottom of this article!)
CarAdvice: How is it different from your typical 3D printer?
Ellen Lee: If you’re familiar with 3D printing, it uses a technology that’s very similar to these types that you are able to buy for home use. It’s kind of like a hot-glue gun where you can lay down material, a layer at a time, to create a 3D shape.
It’s now turned on its side to allow us to print, 'infinitely long' parts. The way that we do this is, that instead of printing up higher and higher, we print out horizontally so that we can access a larger length.
Will this always just be for prototyping or will this eventually be a move towards manufacturing by virtue of 3D printing?
We have an eye in the long term for understanding how 3D printing can be used for manufacturing production parts for vehicles. However, we do understand there is a long way to go to get to that speed, to be able to access the hundreds and thousands of vehicles we make every year.
This is a step in the right direction, because now we are able to print faster than the commercial technologies that are available today. This is about 10 times faster, so it’s still not fast enough for production, but we are moving beyond just prototyping.
What are the applications that it can be used for? Both internal and external non-structural parts, or can you get to structural components as well?
Because it’s in its prototype stage, so far only one material has been optimised for the system. It is a very structural, stiff high-temperature material, so it can be used for structural type applications.
There are a lot of materials that can be used on this system once we start working on developing automotive grade materials, so we can get a range of properties.
Do you see an opportunity in cost saving in warehousing and parts picking? Rather than holding thousands of bumper bars in a big shed somewhere for distribution, if someone needs a bumper bar for their Ford Focus, for example, you'd just print one out. Is that really where it could get to?
It’s really very good in cases where for example, we might need to do local manufacturing. We can forego having to wait for production in a remote location and then ship it to the location that needs the part.
So all of these things would be more efficient if we could make something without a tool, a mould or a form. That’s where we can really reap the benefits of using additive manufacturing.
What you suggest for replacement or warranty parts, that’s also good, because, usually, it’s a very low-volume type of task. And so these are areas that we are starting to explore to understand that okay, the volumes fit, but now we have to make sure the performance of the printed parts match the performance that we would get from a conventionally manufactured part.
As the models move forward, and you start to build this 3D catalogue of parts and components... to not have to worry so much about older models, would this help from a longevity perspective?
As we move forward towards digital manufacturing, where all of these files take up physical space, we are able to be a more lean manufacturer.
As we move forward with what we are making today and when they become classic cars, they will be easily repaired and maintained, just by going to your library of digital parts.
What would you love to be able to do in the future?
The long-term dream is to be able to print parts that go onto a vehicle, not the entire vehicle specifically.
Today’s manufacturing techniques are very good at producing high volumes, but when we start thinking about, how can we make our vehicles more efficient and better for our customers, and think about how we can design those parts to do the functions that they’re meant for, rather than try to design around the constraints that we have.
Then, we can start to get more efficient performance from our vehicles. We really need to start to design in a new way, looking at what additives manufacturing can bring us.
Listen to the CarAdvice team interview Ellen Lee below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.