Ford is jumping on the additive manufacturing bandwagon, teaming up with a startup that claims its 3D manufacturing system makes parts 25 to 100 times faster than conventional 3D printing systems. The automaker is using additive processes to make tooling and may eventually use them to make production parts.
Ford recently disclosed that it began working with Carbon3D late last year. The Redwood City, CA, company is working on an additive manufacturing system that creates polymer parts, with production equipment set to emerge next year. Carbon3D’s Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP) technology builds components without pausing, unlike conventional additive processes that build parts by processing one layer at a time.
“CLIP builds parts up continuously instead of going step by step,” said Kirk Phelps, Vice President of Product Management at Carbon3D. “Oxygen diffuses through the bottom of the tooling, limiting the reaction caused by the UV light. As the oxygen level gets less dense, the light does its job.”
Ford hopes to expand its use of 3D printing, which is seeing rapid market acceptance in many fields. Additive processes are particularly well suited for quick builds such as prototypes, since there’s no need to wait for tooling development. Ford’s also interested in creating tooling with 3D equipment.
“3D printing is ideal for prototypes; we’ve used it for a long time,” said Ellen Lee, Team Leader for Ford’s additive manufacturing research. “Now we’re using it to make tooling, to shorten development time. We also use it to check ergonomics for people building assemblies, using printed parts to see if workers are able to make all the necessary connections in limited spaces.”
Ford may eventually use Carbon3D’s high-speed system to make limited production pieces. Automotive’s high volumes often make it more effective to produce parts with conventional manufacturing techniques. However, 3D parts can be built into many unusual shapes and sizes. That could make additive processes viable for production parts that are dramatically different than those made with conventional processes.
“We’re interested in it for structures that can’t be made with traditional technologies,” Lee said. “Sometimes, a solid part can be made lighter by opening up space inside, for example using honeycomb patterns that can’t be produced with other technologies. Another possibility for production parts is to combine many parts into one, which reduces shipping and assembly costs among other benefits.”
The project with Carbon3D, founded in 2013, highlights Ford’s growing interest in working with startups. That can be challenging, since young firms find it difficult to wait for a return on investment given the auto industry’s long development time frames.
“In general, startups are very short-term focused, looking at six to 12 months,” said James Buczkowski, Director of Global Electrical and Electronics Systems Engineering at Ford. “We can help them raise capital. If Ford is involved, that can often help when they go out for venture capital.”