Innovation

Ford tests Stratasys 3D printer for large, personalized car parts

Ford is partnering with Stratasys to explore 3D printing for large-scale auto parts that are lighter weight and more cost-effective. Here's what it could mean for your business.

Ford Motor Company is stepping into the world of 3D printing, using a partnership with Stratasys to test the 3D printing of large-scale auto parts, the company announced Monday—which could have implications for the future of the technology in the enterprise.

The Stratasys Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator, released in August 2016, produces large, customizable tools and production parts designed for accuracy, repeatability, and speed.

"Capable of printing automotive parts of practically any shape or length, the Stratasys Infinite Build system could be a breakthrough for vehicle manufacturing - providing a more efficient, affordable way to create tooling, prototype parts and components for low-volume vehicles such as Ford Performance products, as well as personalized car parts," according to a press release.

Ford is the first automaker to pilot the printer, which is currently housed at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan.

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Ford Motor Company tests the 3D printing of large scale car parts using the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer.

Image: Ford Motor Company

"With Infinite Build technology, we can print large tools, fixtures and components, making us more nimble in design iterations," said Ellen Lee, Ford technical leader of additive manufacturing research, in the press release. "We're excited to have early access to Stratasys' new technology to help steer development of large-scale printing for automotive applications and requirements."

SEE: Stratasys unveils new 3D printers for designers that could speed up the prototyping process

Auto production specifically benefits from 3D printing, because the technology can produce lighter weight parts that lead to greater fuel efficiency, the release noted. For example, a 3D printed spoiler could weigh less than half of a traditional one made from cast metal. The technology can also be used to more easily personalize car parts.

3D printing is also more cost efficient in terms of producing low-volume parts for prototypes, or for specialized race car parts, the release said. For example, it would typically take months to produce a prototype for a new intake manifold—but with 3D printing, it would take only days, and would be much less expensive, the release said.

"Working with Ford, we've helped tap into some of the most complex requirements the automotive industry is facing," Jim Vurpillat, director of automotive and aerospace at Stratasys, told TechRepublic. "More specifically, the creation of large and lightweight parts with repeatable mechanical properties. Moving forward, we'll continue to collaborate with Ford and accelerate new automotive product design through the power of 3D printing. These are innovations that were previously not possible due to size and design limitations."

The Infinite-Build allows you to 3D print on a vertical plane instead of horizontally, without size limits. It also operates at a speed 10 times faster than previously possible, and can change in and out different types of material, with process control embedded in the system.

In August, Stratasys first announced that Ford was exploring the Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator's abilities for car manufacturing as well. The company is also partnering with Daihatsu, a division of Toyota, to use 3D printing to customize car parts.

3D printing has been slow to catch on in the enterprise. A recent survey from Tech Pro Research found that 3D printing in the enterprise increased only slightly between 2014 and 2016: Some 12% of businesses said they were actively using 3D printers as part of business operations in 2014, compared to 18% in 2016. Two-thirds of businesses that were not using 3D printers said they simply see no reason to do so.

However, among companies that do use 3D printing, spending increased between 2014 and 2016, the Tech Pro Research survey found. Enterprise attitudes toward 3D printing are also shifting: In 2014, 19% of respondents said 3D printing would have a strong positive effect on their industry, increasing sales, profits, contracts, or jobs. In 2016, that number rose to 28%.

Big industry partnerships like that between Ford and Stratasys are necessary to make 3D printing a viable option for smaller businesses as well. It also signals that more enterprise applications for 3D printing are likely on the way. In February 2017, Stratasys unveiled its F123 Series 3D printers, which aim to put affordable, easy-to-use rapid prototyping into the hands of design teams in any office.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

1. On Monday, Ford Motor Company announced that it was beginning to test 3D printing large-scale auto parts, as part of a partnership with Stratasys.

2. The Stratasys Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator, released in August 2016, has the ability to create automotive parts of almost any shape or size, and could potentially make more lightweight and cost effective parts.

3. While enterprise adoption of 3D printing has been slow, partnerships like this could signal new applications for the technology in business.

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About Alison DeNisco

Alison DeNisco is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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