How Ford Motor Company is Innovating 3D Printing for the Automotive Industry: Expert Interview with Harold Sears
08 January 2019
What does the future of automotive production look like? Ford Motor Company may just have the answer.
In the summer of 2018, the car manufacturer opened its Advanced Manufacturing Center in Michigan. The 135,000-square-foot facility, worth a reported $45 million, brings together an array of technologies, including collaborative robots, VR and AR.
3D printing will also be a central focus of the facility. Unsurprising, considering Ford has been an early champion of 3D printing — having bought the third 3D printer ever made in 1988.
Today, the company now extensively uses 3D printing as part of its product development and is exploring ways to integrate the technology into its production lines. The Advanced Manufacturing Center will play a key role, already housing 23 industrial 3D printers.
With 25 years’ industry experience, Harold Sears is the Technical Leader of Additive Manufacturing Technologies at Ford. We recently spoke with Sears to learn more about how the company is innovating 3D printing for the automotive industry.
With such an extensive career in additive manufacturing, how have you seen both the industry and the technologies evolve over the years?
In the early days, additive manufacturing was just seen as a way to produce concept models that people could look at. That was about it.
From there, it evolved to offer more durable materials where functional prototypes were could be made and tested.
Since then, the technology that was known for many years as rapid prototyping has now evolved into what we call additive manufacturing, where 3D printing technologies are being used for much more than just prototyping.
As materials and processes have progressed and developed, additive manufacturing is now becoming a tool to aid in production applications and support mainstream production. We’re also starting to see some of the first examples of parts being produced to be put on consumer vehicles, so now production parts are coming out of these AM systems.
The industry has made quite a lot of progress since its early days. I’d even say that the last five years of technological development has accelerated much more than the first 10 to 15 years. AM has become much more functional and more a part of daily engineering and manufacturing processes.
Ford Motor Company was a very early adopter of additive manufacturing. How is the company using AM today? What value does the technology provide?
Additive manufacturing has definitely established itself as a key component in our product development cycle, supporting the production of prototype parts and development exercises around product engineering.
While we’re still continuing to support product development and prototyping — we produce literally tens of thousands of parts per year — more recently, we’ve been looking into how the technology can be used to support the manufacturing environment.
We’re excited to explore the ways in which 3D printing can impact manufacturing operations. Our activities mainly focus on two key areas: one is supporting current production processes with more efficient tooling, jigs and fixtures and actually using these processes in the manufacturing space.
Additionally, we’re keen to push the 3D printing industry to recognise automotive a lot more by developing products that are more specific to our needs.
By and large, a lot of what we see in the additive world today is driven by the aerospace and medical industries. Their needs are very different from the needs of automotive, so we hope to lead the industry in a direction that makes more sense for automotive as well.
This means pushing for more upgrades for materials, creating build envelopes for machines that match the types of parts that we’re interested in making and greatly improving the speed of the process.
Could you elaborate more on the specific needs of the automotive industry?
One example is having more automotive-centric materials.
For instance, many 3D printing processes use UV-curable materials, and UV exposure in automotive is a serious issue to consider. It’s difficult to take a material that cures under UV light and put in into an automobile where it will be exposed to nearly constant UV light.
So is there a way to control that exposure or to turn it off after a certain point? Ultimately, for automotive applications at least, the ability to withstand the rigours of day-to-day UV exposure is vital.
Temperature swings are another thing. Materials can be very susceptible to breaking down when they are continuously exposed to large temperature swings, which is very typical of automotive applications.
We have a set of materials that are fairly well accepted today within the automotive space. So what we’d really like to see is the industry starting to adapt some of those materials. That would make our testing and validation, as well as our application use, a lot more suitable for 3D printing.
The second element is the size of the build envelope of systems.
Any vehicle is made up of a lot of small components that fit well within the build envelopes of the machines today. But there are also a lot of larger components that just don’t quite fit today. So we’d really like to see manufacturers consider other systems that have larger build envelopes.
The final part is the throughput or the speed of the machines.
Our production volumes are considerably different from the volumes of aerospace or medical. So we have to look at systems that are capable of producing parts in minutes or seconds as opposed to days and hours. Anything that we can do to push the technology into faster build speeds is definitely what will help us as well.
Do you have any thoughts on how long it will take to address these areas of concern for the automotive industry? How far away are we, for example, from high-volume production for car components?
If you’d asked about the volume production capability of AM machines five years ago, the answer may have been several hundreds or perhaps just a few thousand parts.
But if you have the same conversation with just about anybody in the industry today, the answer will be much higher — into the tens of thousands of parts.
I suspect that as the technology grows, within three to five years the answer will be closer to four hundred or five hundred thousand part volumes.
While I can’t give any specific numbers on anything we’re working towards, those are some generally accepted feelings in the industry right now when it comes to the growth of the technology and volume capability.
What have been some of the 3D printing success stories during your time at Ford?
We continue to support product development with prototypes. This has involved producing hundreds of thousands of parts to help product development and accelerate testing and development.
When you look at that space alone, there have been huge benefits for the company. For example, a component will go through several iterations in the development and engineering phase.
Traditionally, an engineer would have designed a component, sent that design out, have a tool made and have parts made using the tool for testing. Based on these results, the design or the tool would be modified or a whole new tool made at a very large expense. This lengthy process would be repeated over and over.
But today it’s pretty much a part of the product development process.
An engineer can now send several designs of one component to a 3D printing shop at once. This means they can be produced at the same time and handed to the engineer at the same time. The engineer can then go away and do parallel testing on them.
So ultimately what we’re seeing is a process iterated down very quickly, where you may go from seven designs down to three, down to one through a very quick process.
That in itself provides huge efficiencies, both through the cost savings made from not having to make several iterations of a tool, as well as significant time savings we see when bringing a product to market.
Then as we’re starting to apply these technologies in the manufacturing environment, we ’re also seeing great efficiencies here too.
For example, helping people do their jobs by making tools that are more ergonomically correct for operators. This is perhaps a soft benefit but one that is certainly helpful if operators are happier and more comfortable doing their job. They’ll also do a better job which only improves quality.
We’re also working on a few applications that we’ve hinted towards but haven’t given a great amount of detail on. One is an application in our manufacturing environment that will give us the ability to save over 2 million dollars.
So as far as integrating AM into the manufacturing environment, we’re really setting the stage for being able to do some significant things with the technology to help with our processes.
How do you see AM evolving over the next 5 years?
A year ago, I’d have said that metal additive manufacturing would get a lot of the attention, which it still is. However, there are some significant technological advancements taking place in the polymers or plastics side as well. I believe both technologies will grow up together.
Additionally, one of the important things for the technology is to understand what it can’t do as well. I’ll never promote AM as a be-all-end-all technology that can do anything because it’s not.
So the industry is recognising what additive manufacturing can’t do as well as the fact that it can do a lot more than most are using it for today.
At Ford, our focus is to try to explore what the current capabilities of it are today and to reap some of the benefits of this as we grow with the technology and help to direct it where we want to go in the future.
What other factors should we keep in mind?
I think we’ve largely talked about additive and 3D printing as far as the technology and machines go. But there are two additional factors to that: software and training.
In order for all these pieces to fit together, companies like Ford and others will be focusing efforts on training employees to use Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) methodologies — a different way to think about your approach to design.
By and large, we’re trained through engineering schools to think about designs that can be made with conventional processes. DfAM is going to be asking people to start to think differently about what they do and how they approach their designs.
Software will be a huge part of that. Tools like topology optimisation software have traditionally been very difficult to use, so the question is how will they evolve to become simpler products to use in future.
Generative design software is being given a lot of attention in the industry right now as well. But how can we take advantage of the capability of generative design software to, if nothing else, at least generate an initial concept that an engineer can begin to make it a reality? These questions and more will need to be addressed in the future.
So when you look at the training, the software and the hardware evolution, these three all need to be tied closely together to reap the full benefit of these technologies.
Ford recently opened its Advanced Manufacturing Center. Could you give us an insight into the vision behind the facility and what Ford hopes to achieve?
As far as the additive part of the facility, we’re focusing on many of the things I’ve mentioned. It’s really about pushing the technology, about engaging with vendors and suppliers — and taking them on this journey with us.
For example, we recently had a couple of our tier 1 suppliers, and discussed where we’re headed with the technology and what we plan to do.
So the facility is a place where we can bring a lot of these interactions in together: we can work with 3D printing suppliers on new processes, equipment and materials.
We have a flexible floor space so we can bring in a machine on a consignment basis for 6 months or a year. We can set it up and run it and provide direct feedback on the application use of the technology. We’re able to do that to support material development, process development or even a whole new technology.
And at the same time, we’ve really opened this up to be a collaborative space. If we have a supplier that we need to get involved in these technologies and they’re not there yet, we’re willing to bring them in on this space and say, “Here are the machines, let’s go ahead and start building parts that are more applicable to your business and what we need you to do with the technology.”
What’s next on the horizon for Ford in 2019?
We’ve made a significant investment in this facility and you’ll see us start to take advantage of that investment.
You’ll see more announcements in the future about products that are going to be 3D printed for production vehicles and more announcements around applications, how we’re using it in the manufacturing space to improve our efficiencies, help accelerate our product development cycles, improve quality and to introduce new products.
Additive manufacturing is going to continue to be ingrained more and more into the daily part of what we do as a business. Instead of being an exception to the norm, it’s going to be much more accepted as the way it’s done.