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Freeform Fabrication: Ford’s Bold Idea To Create Rapid, Personalized, Low-Volume Products

Posted By Paul Tate, July 04, 2013 at 7:06 AM, in Category: Transformative Technologies

Ford Motor Company says its engineers are now working on a new and highly flexible advanced production technology that could revolutionize the way companies create sheet metal parts for low volume product applications.

Called the Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T), it involves a patented rapid manufacturing process developed at the Ford Research and Innovation Center that harnesses the power of software-driven robotics tools to create precise, pre-determined 3-dimensional designs.

Ford predicts that once the idea is fully developed, it could slash delivery times for auto prototypes down to just three days, compared to two to six months using conventional methods. It can also be used to rapidly develop concept vehicles and allow more extensive buyer personalization. Ford says the new technology also has enormous potential across other manufacturing sectors like aerospace, defense, transportation and the appliance industries.

The way the new F3T process works, reveals Ford, is that a piece of sheet metal is clamped around its edges and formed into a 3D shape by two stylus-type tools working in unison on opposite sides of the sheet metal blank. Similar to a digital printer, after the CAD data of a part are received, computer-generated tool paths control the F3T machine to form the sheet metal part into its final shape, with the required tolerances and surface finish. 

Ford also cites a number of significant cost and speed benefits over conventional techniques:

Low cost: Geometric-specific forming dies are completely eliminated, along with the high cost and long lead time associated with die engineering, construction and machining.

Rapid delivery: F3T aims to enable the delivery of a sheet metal part within three business days from the time the CAD model of the part is received. Conventional methods can take up to 60 times longer.

Flexibility: F3T vastly improves the vehicle R&D process, allowing for more flexibility in quickly creating parts for prototypes and concept cars. Currently, creating a prototype die can take six to eight weeks, and developing a full prototype vehicle usually takes several months and up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. F3T could produce sheet metal parts for prototypes in just days for essentially no cost.

Personalization: F3T has the potential to allow for many more personalization options to serve the rapidly developing global auto market, adding the ability for buyers to easily customize vehicle bodywork and parts.

“As we forge ahead with cutting-edge technologies in manufacturing like flexible body shops, robotics, 3D printing, virtual reality and others, we want to push the envelope with new innovations like F3T to make ourselves more efficient and build even better products,” said John Fleming, executive vice president of global manufacturing and labor affairs at Ford and a member of the Manufacturing Leadership Board.

The new F3T project is part of a three-year, U.S. Department of Energy initiative to advance next-generation, energy-efficient manufacturing processes. Ford is working on the project in collaboration with Boeing, MIT, Northwestern University, and Penn State Erie.

 



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Written by Paul Tate

Paul Tate is Research Director and Executive Editor with Frost & Sullivan's Manufacturing Leadership Council. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Council's Board of Governors, the Council's annual Critical Issues Agenda, and the Manufacturing Leadership Research Panel. Follow us on Twitter: @MfgExecutive



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