Ford Motor Company bought many of its engineers a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic. On the one hand, this is a great development, for the company and the engineers will discover just how useful 3D printing technology can be. On the other hand, a Thing-O-Matic? Ford, couldn’t you have obtained more capable 3D printers? There are a number out there, including MakerBot’s newest 3D printers, and other brands, some of which you can obtain through a lease.
In the long run, though, use of a Thing-O-Matic could likely lead to a greater number of purchases of higher capability 3D printers. Because once Ford and its engineers discover just how useful and necessary this technology is, the engineers will want better systems, from higher quality and more accurate desktop 3D printers to larger systems for other types of prototyping.
Noted K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader, Open Innovation, and a member of Ford’s Technology Advisory Board, Research and Innovation, in a recent press release, “We’ve been shifting from the tangible world to the computer world, and the reality is that a hybrid model works best. There is nothing like having a tangible prototype, but it has always been time consuming and expensive to create.
“Now, at the press of a button, you can have the product or component at your fingertips,” he added. “With a model in one hand, you can then input your changes back into the computer model. The best decisions are made from the highest quality engineer and at the best pace.”
Ford engineers use the low-cost MakerBot 3D printer mainly for small developments like shift knobs, gauges and display modules. But I will bet that will change as the engineers gain more experience with 3D printing, and as management obtains data on how cost-effective these systems can be for design and development.
According to Ford, it is “using 3D printing in the manufacturing world, bridging the gap between abstract and practical.” The company is “fully invested in the latest commercial 3D printing innovations.”
Recently, many of the components for the 3.5-liter EcoBoost® engine in the all-new Transit Van were developed with the aid of 3D rapid manufacturing. Cast aluminum oil filtration adaptors, exhaust manifolds, differential carrier, brake rotors, oil pan, differential case casting and even rear axles were prototyped with the technology, specifically using selective laser sintering, stereolithography, and 3D sand casting. Ford is 3D printing with sand to create casting patterns and cores with multiple printers in-house.
Some recent examples of 3D sand printing include:
C-MAX, Fusion Hybrid: Rotor supports, transmission cases, damper housings and end covers for the new HF35 hybrid transmission built at Van Dyke Transmission Plant in suburban Detroit
Escape: EcoBoost four-cylinder engines in the 2013 Escape built at Louisville Assembly Plant
Explorer: Brake rotors for the 2011 Explorer built in Chicago. The rotors were modified late in development to address a brake noise issue discovered in durability testing
F-150: Exhaust manifolds for the 3.5-liter EcoBoost built in Cleveland and used in F-150
“Many have referenced this technology as ushering in a third industrial revolution,” said Harold Sears, Ford additive manufacturing technical specialist. “While that is yet to be determined, we do know manufacturing is continuing to go digital, the speed of these technologies is increasing, and the variety of materials is expanding. This all leads us to believe the potential of micro-manufacturing presents great opportunity for the manufacturing industry overall.”
Well said, Mr. Sears.