Recently I was invited by Ford Canada to visit Detroit during the North American International Auto Show. Along with the auto show, I got a behind-the-scenes look at how the Ford is using 3D printing technology at its research and technology centre in Dearborn, Michigan.

First of all, what is 3D printing?

3D printing, or “rapid prototyping” is exactly what it sounds like: making a three-dimensional object from a computer design using a special printer. It used to be that most prototypes were made using typical machining techniques, which “carve” something out of a block of material. 3D printing, instead, starts with nothing and builds an object up.


Picture a regular inkjet or laser printer. Imagine if the paper stayed inside the printer and it kept depositing ink on top of the previous layer. That’s basically how a 3D printer works. Instead of ink, various types of materials are laid down onto a surface, one layer at a time, building upon the previous layer. Eventually a complete object is made.


How does it work?

There are many types of technologies that fall under the 3D printing umbrella. The difference is really in the materials used and how they are printed with. Small, desktop-sized 3D printers (like a MakerBot) typically use some form of plastic and work like a hot glue gun that uses molten plastic instead of glue to draw each layer.

The large, room-sized industrial printers that Ford has can use a variety of different materials including plastics, nylon, various resins and even metal. These are typically found in powder form. The printers have a large bed of powdered material that is heated to just below the melting point. Then a print head (which contains a laser) passes by and fuses the powder at a very small layer height. Then the bed moves up or down (depending on the printer) and then the process repeats, layer by layer, until the object is complete – this can take a few minutes to a few days depending on the size of the object being printed. It’s then removed from the powder bed and cleaned up for use.


Why use 3D printing?

Traditional manufacturing processes can be time consuming. Every part needs to be designed and then fabricated. The methods for fabrication can require expensive molds and machinery. But what if the part isn’t perfect or doesn’t fit?

That’s where 3D printing comes in. During the design process, being able to touch and hold a 3D printed part can mean being able to spot issues well before spending money on building a mold or setting up expensive machines. It also replaces hand tooling, which can take days or weeks to make just one part. Instead, that part can be 3D printed in a matter of hours.

Once the part has been proven, it can be manufactured using traditional methods, saving huge amounts of expense in the design phase.

Another exciting aspect of 3D printing is that it can also help find ways to create parts that couldn’t be manufactured the traditional way. Being able to test the strength of parts with better, stronger designs and of different materials can lead to much lighter vehicles that are more fuel efficient. The newly unveiled F-150 is over 700 lbs. lighter thanks in part to these design innovations.

How is Ford using 3D printing?

Ford has been using this technology practically since it was invented. Ford purchased the third printer ever sold and since then they have 3D printed over half a million parts in their facilities for prototype vehicles.

 Parts being printed include everything from various vents and ductwork for the air conditioning system to the engine block. Complete truck grills can be printed all the way down to the knobs and switches for the interior controls.

My thoughts

For me, getting to see how this company is using the technology that I’ve been advocating for years was amazing. I’ve seen a few types of the different kinds of printers they had, but never at that scale. I’ve also never seen a metal printer before either, which was fascinating to see running.

See what it looks like here:

Using this technology, early on, can save a company untold amounts of money typically wasted during the design phase but at the same time, can also foster new thinking because the technology doesn’t have the same limitations that traditional methods do.

That is where the magic happens. I spend a lot of my time getting children excited about this technology. I imagine a world where, much like the Internet, these kids have access to tools unimaginable by previous generations. That can only lead to more exciting products and innovations as these children go through school with these new tools at their fingertips. Ford’s been using this technology for decades … imagine what they’re already working on for future models!

If you could 3D print something, what would you make?