Ford exploring 3D printing of one-piece auto parts

Ford Motor said it is experimenting with 3D printers to manufacture large auto parts such as spoilers for prototypes and production vehicles.

If the pilot program now being run by Ford goes perfectly fine, then you might witness vehicles built partially using 3D printing technology in the coming years.

Ford is the first automaker to make use of this technology in their manufacturing process, enabling it to produce lighter and cheaper components for its vehicles.

A trial project is making use of industrial 3D printers supplied by Stratasys to establish whether production lines can be economised by fabricating key components and tools using the machines, or whether traditional production methods retain the upper hand.

3D printing could bring vast benefits for automotive production, including the ability to produce lighter-weight parts that could lead to greater fuel efficiency. "We're excited to have early access to Stratasys' new technology in order to help steer the development of large scale printing for automotive applications and requirements". This 3D printing machine is a beast and provides for rapid prototyping of components and parts for building its upcoming vehicles.

To date, 3D printing has largely been used for on-demand parts as well as prototypes. Commercial 3D printing is appealing because it doesn't require use of the kinds of moulds built to form plastic body panel parts like spoilers today.

The technology is seen as a big future business with spending on the hardware along with associated software, materials and services set to reach $28.9 billion in 2020, compared with around 13.2 billion a year ago, according to research from IDC. The company estimates a 3D-printed spoiler can way half of a cast-iron spoiler. This allows the printer to operate unattended for hours - days, even.

The technology is not fast enough for high-volume manufacturing yet, but is more cost-efficient for low-volume production. In addition, HP said it recognized revenue from its 3D printing systems for the first time last quarter.

  • Arturo Norris