By Melissa Donovan
Automotive manufacturers make up some of the largest groups of professionals using 3D printing technology. The number of parts and tools that go into the manufacture of a vehicle are numerous and vary between each model. 3D printing is one way to cost-effectively create small amounts of parts and tools that cater to these needs.
Above: Ford’s pilot plant in Cologne, Germany works with 3D printers from Ultimaker as well as software from Trinckle to create custom tools, parts, and jigs for building automobiles.
Worldwide automobile manufacturer Ford is famously known for being on the forefront of innovation, starting with the invention of the moving assembly line in 1913. Remaining in sync with its originator’s principles to drive innovation, the company uses additive manufacturing in several of its European plants.
In Cologne, Germany, Ford’s pilot plant creates each new vehicle design before it goes into mass production. A complete small-scale manufacturing line develops cars up to several years before they are sold to the public.
During the manufacture of a new design, custom tools are used—many designed for one specific task or model. For example, the Ford Focus alone is manufactured using over 50 custom designed tools, jigs, and fixtures. Producing the tools is often costly and takes a long amount of time. The company turned to additive manufacturing to optimize this process.
First, a dedicated additive manufacturing team was formed. The initial process chosen was a 3D printer using selective laser sintering or SLS technology. Unfortunately, despite good results the output required additional post processing. Identifying Ultimaker BV as a technology leader in fused filament fabrication or FFF, Ford implemented the Ultimaker 3 three years ago.
The Ultimaker 3 offers complete design freedom paired with reliable dual extrusion with water-soluble support. Its build dimensions are 215x215x299 millimeters at up to 20 microns. New optimized cooling features two radial fans and fan shrouds, which create greater pressure build up for an improved airflow. The result is better cooling, high-quality bridging, faster print runs, and smooth print surfaces.
Ford added an Ultimaker S5 in 2018. An easy-to-use desktop printer for industrial-grade parts, with a build volume of 330x240x300 millimeters, it combines build materials like plastic and composites with a water-soluble PVA support material. Supports are removed by resting the print in water. Active bed leveling ensures a perfect first layer, a closed front controls airflow, and a filament flow sensor pauses a print and notifies the user when more material is needed.
Filament options are endless for both the Ultimaker 3 and S5. The printers are optimized for nylon, PLA, tough PLA, ABS, CPE, PVA, CPE+, TPU 95A, PC, PP, and Breakaway. “The open filament system lets us use industrial materials, which helps us to make even more durable tools and fixtures for our high-volume production,” shares Lars Bognar, Ford Research & Advanced Engineering Europe.
In addition to choosing the printers for their quality and reliability, the automotive manufacturer also enjoys using Ultimaker Cura software, which prepares models for 3D printing. It is designed to create a seamless integration between the 3D printer, software, and materials. The cross platform, open source program offers recommended or custom modes, which configure to over 300 settings—allowing the least to most experienced users to work with the system.
“The automotive industry serves as a great example of the power of desktop 3D printing. Manufacturers traditionally had a centralized 3D printing room away from where the actual production or design process was occurring. Access to 3D printing was limited. Now, instead of 100s of engineers using a central location, there might be 25 desktop printers. This has led to an uptick in prints, collaboration, and overall faster designs,” says Paul Heiden, SVP of product management, Ultimaker.
The dedicated 3D workshop in the pilot plant is the first of multiple locations that now house Ultimaker 3D printers in the Ford family. Factories in Italy, Romania, and Spain can now also print the tools they need for manufacturing vehicles. The team in Germany supplies the designs electronically, and then the tools can be printed and used in shop next day.
Automated product configuration software—Paramate from Trinckle—allows factory workers without previous experience generating 3D objects to design jigs. Trinckle developed an internal application for creating jigs, offering designs for Ford engineers within minutes, which integrates with the Ultimaker printers and software.
“Today, only skilled process engineers are able to design complex fixtures. In the future, even the untrained worker can use this software to create his own tools,” explains Bognar.
A cloud-based platform, Paramate enables easy collaboration between users in multiple locations. The team in Cologne creates components used for tools such as handles and magnet holders. The engineer loads the design of the car, adds handles, and an open space where they need to add a part to the car. Paramate then generates the geometry of the tool, which precisely fits the contour of the car body. The design is sent directly to Ultimaker Cura and then printed at the intended location’s Ultimaker S5.
Designing tools is simplified. What once took two to four hours now only takes ten minutes. “The Trinckle software application not only dramatically reduces manual design times and costs, but also streamlines the entire process. It enables employees on the shop floor to take over more responsibility and relieves designers at the same time—they can focus on core activities,” shares Raphael Koch, Ford Research & Advanced Engineering Europe.
Ford is experiencing great success at its pilot plant in Cologne, using 3D printing technologies to create tools, jigs, and fixtures before going into mass production. The tools not only speed up manufacturing time but keep costs down.
Additional benefits relate to worker health. Many of these tools offer ergonomic benefits for Ford’s workforce. After prolonged use, traditional metal tools can feel heavy and impact workers’ health over time. Ultimaker’s range of filaments are often strong enough to replace metal tools, which makes life a lot easier for assembly personnel.
On to Production
The dedicated 3D workshop is just the beginning for Ford. The company hopes to explore the possibilities of creating spare parts and final parts using 3D printing. “We want to take the next step, we also want to 3D print spare parts. We want to design for additive manufacturing and be able to print production parts for vehicles,” concludes Bognar.
Jun2019, Industrial Print Magazine