When it was mentioned to him that Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) printers are being
used at several car factories to provide jigs and fixtures to great effect, he dismissed
the trend, saying automakers are driving more toward reliability.
“They are tired of hobby printers on factory floors for 90 days and then [throwing] them
away,” he says. “Go to car manufacturers, you see more of our printers there,” he says.
So, we did.
Seeking New Heights
Stepping into Ford’s brand new 100,000-ft² Advanced Manufacturing Center outside
Detroit in mid-April, it felt exactly how I imagine a real-life Wayne Enterprises would:
robots, virtual reality, and exoskeletons galore, plus about as many 3D printers as
IMTS ( 25 in all, with more on the way).
This is a critical time for automakers, with political and social demands for cars to
be more fuel-efficient, to drive themselves, and yet remain affordable. Which means
Ford doesn’t have time for dalliances in emerging tech—it is looking to scale optimal
solutions for effortless workflows. And that is exactly what this $45 million innovation
dreamhouse is for.
The place methodically vets where those opportunities may lie. But, honestly, it looks
more like the 100 or so workers there are just playing with manufacturing’s coolest toys.
Harold Sears, Ford’s additive manufacturing technical leader, oversees the additive
goings-on here, trying to manage all the various machines and materials. He’s been at it
for nearly 30 years, starting with rapid prototyping of powertrain components in 1990.
“Nothing can keep cars from getting out the door, so we have to be very careful that
this is not perceived as a distraction, but will enhance the business,” Sears says.
Ford is currently running 3D printers in at least 30 of its factories, which seems like
a good sign that it is more than just a trend. These are real manufacturing tools for
the carmaker, and they are treated as such.
For Ford, Sears says, it’s all about the experience, the manufacturing muscle memory.
Even 3D printers cannot bypass the need for those.
For evidence, he pulls out an electronic parking brake bracket from a Carbon M2 printer,
which will be used for the new Mustang Shelby GT500. Sears notes that it reduces weight
“The ‘so what’ for this is the process we had to go through to actually produce produc-
tion parts, understand machine-to-machine variations, and keypath the process,” Sears
says. “It’s a big thing. We learn so much doing this. It really paves the way for bigger and
Getting the timing right is also huge, as the operators must adhere to a strict cadence to
pull a part from the build zone and drop into the post-processing washer to clear away sup-
port material or whatever the next step is. Because something else is always in the queue.
“We don’t want a job to finish right before the operator goes to lunch,” explains Sears.
Ford uses an internal scheduling system and workers are given a production schedule
for the week.
Some jobs can take 14 hours and certain printers will have 20-70 different parts for four
or five internal customers, Sears says. So the operators, a mix of technicians with two-year
degrees and engineers with at least a four-year degree, time longer prints for overnight.
Between the large EOS P770 and Desktop Metal Studio System, Sears points to a
Stratasys F370 (around $30,000). Along with the F170 and 270, it’s part for the F123
Series that was voted as a NED Innovation Winner in 2018. The printers accept four