Ford Races Ahead in Additive Manufacturing

Ford has a successful track record using additive manufacturing – and a bright future ahead, with industry-leading technology and high-potential options to explore

While flashy (and sincerely incredible) feats like building a home in 24 hours may grab headlines in additive manufacturing (i.e., 3D printing), established companies aren’t missing out on the movement.[1] Ford was in the spotlight last year for its new large-scale printer, but that’s just one step in the company’s continued journey that spans everything from now-standard parts printing to partnerships in the additive manufacturing space.

3D printing is important to Ford for several reasons. First, speed to market can be cut down significantly via the technology. Product development cycles for some auto makers have been roughly halved relative to the not so distant past[2]. Printing parts also reduces the transportation and logistics costs related to suppliers[3]. Lastly, 3D printing has the potential to open the floodgates of customization in an industry that has long been geared toward mass, standardized production.

Carbon3D Printer (company website)

3D printing at Ford is not new. Over the past 5 years, the company has made over 700,000 parts using the technology, saving an estimated $200 million[4]. Put differently, Ford touches “a significant portion of the vehicle with 3D printing now,” according to an expert in Ford’s manufacturing division[5].

Over the short term, Ford will continue to shorten prototyping cycles. As the company builds its printing capacity, it can rely more heavily on the production of multiple prototypes at once, which facilitates parallel testing[6]. It will also lean more heavily on its new investment – startup Desktop Metal – a metal additive manufacturing company, as well as continue to leverage its partnership with Carbon3D, a startup that breaks from the traditional layers-based approach to printing by forming solid, non-layered objects from pools of resins, a process that can form stronger materials more quickly than the traditional one[7]. Lastly, with incremental technology improvement the company can be expected to produce more low volume, complex parts where the cost effectiveness of 3D printing shines.

Ford has also set itself up for the medium term with its new large-scale printer, the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D Printer. Like Carbon3D, this uses a twist on traditional 3D printing – it still builds in layers, but horizontally instead of vertically. While there is a limit to length in typical printers (height of the printer), the horizontal system allows the created object to be moved out the back of the printer as it is created, setting theoretically no limit for object size[8]. In the medium term, this could facilitate making custom cars, and make frequent model updates more feasible[9].

Unlikely to happen over the short or medium term would be a complete transition from traditional subtractive to additive man-

Ford’s Stratasys Infinite Build 3D Printer (company website)

ufacturing, due to a few limitations of the technology in the context of Ford’s production. These include mechanical challenges (e.g., stress requirements can be hard to meet with printed material) as well as cost considerations. High volume and particularly simple parts are likely to remain more cost effective produced with conventional methods for some time[10].

Going forward, Ford should consider some outside-the-box options as well. As the company continues to develop expertise in additive manufacturing, it could provide parts to competitors, particularly from more unique production capabilities like they have in the Infinite Build. It may even make sense to sell outside the auto industry. Particularly to the extent Ford prints their tools, the company could potentially become the tool maker to a wide variety of companies across industries.

Much like the traditional Toyota Production System (TPS) includes going downstream to improve suppliers’ production systems, Ford could also spread best practices in 3D printing to its suppliers where appropriate – bearing in mind one benefit of printing is less reliance on suppliers[11].

In addition to functional parts, Ford could consider using 3D printing to create small decorative items as well. Imagine cup holders, glove compartments, and other tucked-away areas of the car enhanced with a printed design meaningful to the buyer, produced at low cost (and no design switching cost) to Ford. While this is not likely to sway a large portion of buyers, any edge is worth consideration.

There remain open questions with respect to Ford and its additive manufacturing practices. First, what is the right balance between investing here vs. other emerging technologies, like autonomous driving? To some extent, Ford needs to (and is) pursuing both of these areas, but as it competes in a challenging market, it does need to make tradeoffs[12]. Second, I wonder what marketing levers Ford can pull to make 3D printed car parts attractive to the broader market.

One thing seems certain – additive manufacturing at Ford is here to stay, and it will be fascinating to see what both expected and surprising developments take place there over the coming years.

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[1] Sarah Dawood, “3D-printed home built in 24 hours could tackle homelessness,” Design Week Online (2018), via Nexis Uni, accessed November 2018.

[2] Jim Resnick, “For The Automakers, Large-Scale 3D Printing Is The Next Powerful Toolbox,” Forbes, March 8, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimresnick/2017/03/08/for-the-automakers-large-scale-3d-printing-is-the-next-powerful-toolbox/#3966ca057ee0, accessed November 2018.

[3] Loretta Chao, “Automakers, Others Explore New Roles for 3D Printing,” The Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/auto-makers-others-explore-new-roles-for-3-d-printing-1461626635, accessed November 2018.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lucas Mearian, “3D printing is now entrenched at ford,” CIO (2017), via ProQuest, accessed November 2018.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jonathan Vanian, “Why Ford Is Partnering With A Hot 3D Printing Startup,” Fortune, June 23, 2015, fortune.com/2015/06/23/ford-hot-startup-3d-printing/, accessed November 2018.

[8] Laura Putre, “Ford Take the Long View with Large-Scale 3D Printing,” Industry Week (2017), via ProQuest, accessed November 2018.

[9] Chris Paukert, “Ford’s New Room-Sized 3D Printer Upends Additive Manufacturing as we Know It,” cnet, March 4, 2017, https://www.cnet.com/roadshow/news/fords-new-room-sized-3d-printer-upends-additive-manufacturing-as-we-know-it/, accessed November 2018.

[10] Chuck Alexander, “Streamlining Automotive Production with Additive Manufacturing,” Quality 57, no. 5 (2018): 37-39, via ProQuest, accessed November 2018.

[11] Jeffrey Liker, Thomas Y. Choi, “Building Deep Supplier Relationships,” Harvard Business Review, December, 2004, https://hbr.org/2004/12/building-deep-supplier-relationships, accessed November 2018.

[12] Ford Motor Company, “Ford Collaborates with Silicon Valley Innovation Ecosystem on Autonomous Vehicles, 3D Printing, Wearable Technology,” https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/fna/us/en/news/2015/06/23/ford-collaborates-with-silicon-valley-innovation-ecosystem.html, accessed November 2018.

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4 thoughts on “Ford Races Ahead in Additive Manufacturing

  1. TOM199, this was a very insightful essay – thank you for sharing! I couldn’t help but think back to the Toyota case we did and wonder how manufacturers will need to pivot the way they identify and fix errors as 3D printing becomes a larger part of the manufacturing process. Since the process is essentially digitized, it may be easier to attribute errors to a specific point in time, but I’m not sure if the errors would be easier or more complicated to fix – especially in the instance of defective parts that need to be recalled from the market. Perhaps as Ford continues to invest in 3D printing, they should also invest in software detection that allows them to identify and fix errors in real-time.

    I see the investment in 3D printing as a crucial piece of any future investments Ford makes. You mentioned autonomous driving; cutting edge 3D printing technology could allow Ford to roll this out to the market before all brands are mass producing self-driving cars since it cuts down the production lead time significantly. I think splitting R&D costs of 3D printing across future innovation projects would also be a good way to financially account for the technology since it is really a lever that can be used to drive down future costs of all innovation projects.

  2. “what is the right balance between investing here vs. other emerging technologies, like autonomous driving?”

    This quote really stood out to me – is there any intersection between the two? Can Ford invest in emerging technologies that are at the forefront of 3D printing/additive manufacturing and autonomous driving? What would that look like? In addition to questions like these, how does this new form of manufacturing intersect with Ford’s push into urban mobility? They have made a number of acquisitions (https://qz.com/1455335/ford-is-on-track-to-turning-the-jargon-of-being-a-mobility-company-into-a-reality/) over the years, and that leads me to think that they’re trying to shift their business model itself. Is there a role for additive manufacturing? Could it be more important, ie prototyping new kinds of scooters/bikes/etc.?

  3. This was fascinating, thanks for sharing! I think one thing I’ve been curious about is how the 3D manufacturing of personalized car parts will affect the repair process and the levels to which consumers start to tweak vehicle electronics or other components at home. Beyond the point about opportunity costs for investment dollars, I could also imagine scenarios where there are technological conflicts between requirements for autonomous vehicles and 3D printed, consumer-led designs for cars. As vehicles become engineered for autonomous vehicle capabilities, I wonder whether there will be trade-offs in ensuring the safety and security of certain systems required for AV operation while simultaneously providing enough flexibility for 3D customization/consumer-led designs.

  4. Really interesting article! It’s an interesting question to think about whether 3D printing goes against Ford’s core assembly line – I would actually argue that it is part of its brand image. Since its inception, Ford was known for pushing the envelope in its assembly processes – this is simply the new age of innovation. I think doubling down here and making it part of the strategy makes a lot of sense.

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