Ford scales up its 3D-printing experiments

3D printers are great at making small items, but what about large car parts? Ford is trying to scale up automotive 3D printing with tests of a massive Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer. Installed at the automaker’s Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan, Ford says the machine is capable of making most large, one-piece car parts. The carmaker is currently trying out the Infinite Build unit to evaluate the viability of 3D-printed parts for future production cars.

The Infinite Build works like other 3D printers, but on a larger scale. Designs are uploaded to the machine from a computer-aided design program, and are printed out one layer at a time. Ford uses its 3D printer to make parts out of plastic, which are fed into the machine from large canisters. When a canister is empty, a robot arm switches it out for a full one.

Ford doesn’t think 3D printing is currently capable of producing car parts in large volumes, but it does believe the process is more cost effective for low-volume parts. The tests focus on parts that could be used on special performance models and race cars, as well as the creation of prototype parts or personalized items for customers. Printing out something like a prototype intake manifold or spoiler is much faster and cheaper than the traditional processes for making these parts, Ford says.

Ford has already experimented with 3D-printed parts. A Ford race car equipped with a 3D-printed intake manifold won the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona, as a matter of fact. But while the Infinite Build 3D printer allows Ford to scale up its efforts, others are thinking bigger. Local Motors has 3D printed entire bodies for its Strati electric car at trade shows, and plans to sell the Strati to customers.

Granted, the Strati is a small, open-topped car with a relatively simple design. It will probably be awhile, if ever, before conventional cars are mass produced with large numbers of 3D printed parts. But who knows, maybe your next Ford Shelby Mustang will have a 3D printed spoiler.

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