Auto Tech

Ford's new room-sized 3D printer upends additive manufacturing as we know it

The Blue Oval's Stratasys Infinite Build 3D Printer could help to deliver lighter, more customized cars sooner.

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Like nearly every automaker, Ford is keen to figure out how 3D printing can improve its ability to develop and build new cars. Additive manufacturing holds the promise of shorter lead times, increased customization and lighter weight parts, among other efficiencies. Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of blue-sky thinking out there, and still not a ton of actionable data. But that's changing, including at the Ford Motor Company, which has an impressive new tool in its arsenal, the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D Printer.

Still considered to be in beta -- or even alpha -- stage, this room-sized prototype at Ford's Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan, is the product of lateral thinking. Unlike conventional 3D printers that build upward layer by layer, the Stratasys works sideways, which means it can produce much larger objects, theoretically infinite in size. Since the machine works in this manner, its printing process is totally different, in part because it has to layer in support structures for the object it's creating first.

Unlike most commercial printers, the Stratasys doesn't use the filament-like material line feed you're probably thinking of. Instead, it employs a proprietary micro-pellet powder that's almost like sand. The thermoplastic, pelletized material is fed along a screw drive, and heated until liquefaction before it's before shot out of a print head (not unlike an injection-molding tool). A robotic arm refills material canisters when needed, which means the machine can operate on big jobs for many hours or even days.

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Like sands through the hourglass, so is the proprietary thermoplastic of this 3D printer.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

This being a prototype machine, Ford's engineers are still figuring out how to achieve the best results. They've already learned that the orientation in which they print objects has a major impact on things like surface quality. They've also learned they can change the printed product by tweaking bead width, air gap and print speed to achieve the desired finish. There are still the occasional hiccups when the machine gets "lost" and it needs to repeat a section or restart, of course. But that's to be expected of a prototype machine, especially one that the company has only had on hand for a few months.

The Blue Oval is sharing its findings along with longtime partner Stratasys, which has also partnered with aerospace firm Boeing and members of the medical community to find other applications for its machine. Even now, the Infinite Build can run unattended overnight, and Ford is planning on installing a camera system so engineers can keep tabs on its progress remotely after hours.

It will take awhile to figure out how to use Infinite Build 3D printer to its full potential, but that isn't stopping Ford from dreaming big. As Ford's technical leader for Additive Manufacturing Research, Ellen Lee, told me: "Trying to figure out how many different ways you can use it, what types of applications that we have in a big company like this, that's the biggest challenge. I think there's a lot of flexibility in what we can do, it can apply to manufacturing, prototyping, eventually to production, and touch pretty much every part of the vehicle."

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This printer can print objects of infinite length, even large items like full dashboards.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

So don't expect to find 3D-printed parts on your next Ford Fusion or F-150, they're more likely to find their way into concept cars and development prototypes long before consumers will find them on mass-production cars and trucks. In the near term, small-volume applications like spoilers or wings for race cars seem more likely, along with things like manufacturing molds, jigs and other production aids used in factories. Down the road, quicker development speeds and lowered costs could make it easier to build individually customized cars to order, or dramatically increase the frequency and scope of model-year facelifts.

The path to the 3D-printed automotive revolution may be a long way from mapped, but Ford's Stratasys Infinite Build machine makes the future feel that much closer.