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Ford Innovates AM by Lying Down on the Job

Posted on March 8th, 2017 by in New Materials & Applications

Overcoming the constraint of the Cartesian coordinate system, engineers at Ford and Stratasys are finding that the future for 3D printing large parts is not looking up but looking laterally. Moving in more than just the Z-axis enables manufacturing parts theoretically of infinite length.

Perhaps unwittingly influenced by the mathematics scientists and engineers use to describe 3-dimensional space and the Calculus used to model physical phenomena, additive manufacturing systems have traditionally layered 2D slices of objects along the Z axis in “building up” final parts. This approach is complementary to the 3D solid modeling systems used to digitally describe part geometry. Early 3D printing – or stereolithography – systems therefore had volume limits to their production. If your part geometry size exceeded the limit, then you needed to purchase a larger machine.

In an announcement by Ford and further reported by CNET’s Road Show, Ford’s Research and Innovation Center is Dearborn, Michigan is shedding Z-axis limitations in favor of producing parts sideways. Trialing the technology developed by Stratasys, the traditionally horizontal printing plane has been turned 90 degrees to a vertical orientation enabling it to move away from the stationary plane of the print head.

While this does open up significant potential in the size of parts that can now be manufactured, this approach loses one benefit of building up on the Z-axis – gravity. Without the weight of the printed part itself adding stability during printing, parts built on their side require the addition of having support structures added for use during the manufacturing process. These structures can be removed following the curing of the part, but that requires an additional step.

Ford’s additive manufacturing capability has matured significantly in the 30 years since purchasing the third 3D printer ever made – SLA 3 – in 1986. The following video from Ford shows how they use contemporary techniques to innovate new concepts and deliver cars faster:

Whether “straight up” or “lying down”, additive manufacturing has matured significantly over the decades since its inception. Companies in all industries are applying the technology in production with increasing frequency to deliver next generation planes, trains, automobiles, medical devices, or consumer electronics to consumers. In my lifetime will I be able to watch Ford 3D print my first fully electric, autonomously driving automobile in my local showroom as I wait? Probably not, but the percentage of parts that are 3D printed in my next F150 is bound to become higher over time.

How would a little “sideways” thinking change your perspective in solving your company’s product challenges? Tell us about your quest for unconventional knowledge and what it could mean for the future of your products or companies. Share your thoughts in the comments section below and don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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