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. 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. Printing parts also reduces the transportation and logistics costs related to suppliers. Lastly, 3D printing has the potential to open the floodgates of customization in an industry that has long been geared toward mass, standardized production.
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. Put differently, Ford touches “a significant portion of the vehicle with 3D printing now,” according to an expert in Ford’s manufacturing division.
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. 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. 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. In the medium term, this could facilitate making custom cars, and make frequent model updates more feasible.
Unlikely to happen over the short or medium term would be a complete transition from traditional subtractive to additive man-
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.
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.
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. 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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