Ford testing large-scale 3-D printing

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Photo by Ford Motor Co. Ford Motor Co. is making large auto interior parts, such as centre consoles.

Ford Motor Co is testing additive manufacturing of large, thermoplastic automotive parts with a new 3-D printing system from Stratasys.

Like many additive manufacturing systems, the Stratasys Infinite-Build 3-D printer extrudes plastic to build a part layer-by-layer — only instead of building a part bottom-up, it builds in a horizontal direction. New material is added to the “front” of the part as it is moved gradually out of the back of the machine, enabling a potentially unlimited part length.

Ford envisions using the technology for prototyping large parts like bumpers, exterior panels and instrument panels.

“To date, most of the commercial [additive manufacturing] technologies are relatively modest in size,” said Ellen Lee, technical leader at Ford’s Additive Manufacturing Research division. “With one of these larger parts, we would have to print parts and then glue them together, which for visual aids is not a big deal, but when we start extending the usefulness of these prototype parts and start to do some level of testing on them … being able to access larger and larger sizes is very helpful.”

The printer’s vertical build platform has an area of about 30 inches by 48 inches, and Lee’s team has printed parts as much as 6 feet in length. The system prints about 10 times faster than other commercial printers, Lee said, and uses multiple containers of pelletized thermoplastic that are replaced automatically by a robotic arm so the machine can operate for an extended period of time unattended.

While large-part additive manufacturing has potential applications in personalized aftermarket components or parts for niche vehicles, further development is needed in printing speed and compatible materials, Lee said.

Currently Ford is printing parts using Ultem 9085, an aerospace-grade polyetherimide blend from Sabic Innovative Plastics, offered by Stratasys for applications requiring thermal and chemical resistance. Ford is working with Stratasys to develop new materials that meet the specific needs of the automotive industry.

“I think production is a far way away for now, but it’s very important for us to get in with this technology very early so we can steer where the technology goes, where automotive needs it to go,” Lee said. “I think in the shorter term, we can see a lot of value in doing fixtures and tools and things like that for the manufacturing environment.”

Ford has an ongoing research program focused on using additive manufacturing to cut weight and cost and simplify manufacturing. The automaker has also partnered with 3-D printing startup Carbon3D, whose Continuous Liquid Interface Production technology, though currently limited to a smaller build size, offers gains in printing speed and surface finish.

Ford’s additive manufacturing research group is based at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan.


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