Ford Motor Company is currently developing a new form of manufacturing technology that has the potential to reduce costs and delivery time for sheet metal parts that are needed in smaller quantities.
The development is based on a patented manufacturing process developed by the Ford Research and Innovation Center and is currently called as the Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T). The technology allows Ford to form a 2D sheet metal into a 3D shape by two stylus-type tools working in unison on opposite sides of the sheet metal.
The F3T machine receives instructions via data from a CAD software and is directed by the computer-generated tool paths. This is more efficient as compared to traditional prototyping techniques used which not only utilizes a lot more energy and takes several months to complete.
While traditional processes remain the most efficient method for high-volume stamping, the F3T machine can serve as an efficient prototyping tool for low-volume production. Not only does the F3T consume less energy, it is also extremely low cost since it does not make use of forming dies. It also offers fast turnaround time that enable the delivery of a sheet metal within three days from the start of production as compared to the two to six months waiting time when the conventional method is used. The F3T’s benefits offer more flexibility on the manufacturer’s part as it enables them to quickly and efficiently create parts for prototypes.
“The technology behind F3T is yet another example of Ford leading in the advanced manufacturing space. 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, global manufacturing and labor affairs.
F3T also has the potential to allow for greater personalization options, adding the ability for buyers to customize vehicle bodywork. F3T is also 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.
“The F3T sheet metal forming process is one of many advanced manufacturing technologies under development at Ford. We developed this process during the past four years for small-scale applications in a laboratory setting, and the DOE award enables us to scale the process for larger applications and a full prove-out for manufacturing feasibility.” said Randy Visintainer, director of Ford Research and Innovation.