Ford develops technology to speed prototyping, low-volume production

July 15, 2013

Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., is developing a highly flexible, first-of-its-kind, patented manufacturing technology to form sheet metal parts rapidly for low-volume production applications. When fully developed, the technology will allow for lower costs and prototype delivery within three business days versus conventional methods that take two to six months.

The development is based on Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T), a patented manufacturing process developed at the Ford Research and Innovation Center. Through this process, a piece of sheet metal is clamped around its edges and formed into a 3-D 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 is received, computer-generated tool paths control the F3T machine to form the sheet metal part into its final shape to the required dimensional tolerances and surface finish.

While traditional processes remain the most efficient method for high-volume stamping, efficiencies for low-volume production can be achieved with the flexibility F3T provides, the company reports. The technology eliminates the need for geometric-specific forming dies and allows flexibility for the quick creation of prototypes and concept cars. It could produce sheet metal parts for prototypes in just days for essentially no cost, according to the manufacturer. The technology also is expected to have broad applications outside of the automotive industry, including use in the aerospace, defense, transportation, and appliance industries.

The project is part of a three-year, $7.04 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to advance next-generation, energy-efficient manufacturing processes. Led by Ford, other collaborators include Northwestern University, The Boeing Company, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Penn State Erie.