Ford Motor Company is developing a new form of manufacturing technology that has the potential to reduce costs and delivery time for sheet metal parts needed in smaller quantities.
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 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 to the required dimensional tolerances and surface finish.
“The technology behind F3T is yet another example of Ford leading in the advanced manufacturing space,” said John Fleming, executive vice president, global manufacturing and labor affairs. “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.”
Currently, traditional stamping processes are energy-intensive, and it often takes several months for the first part to move from concept to production. 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. Benefits of F3T include:
- 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
- Fast delivery time: The technology 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. With the current technology, parts are delivered anywhere from two to six months using conventional methods – up to approximately 60 times longer than the potential turnaround time for F3T
- More flexibility: Once fully developed, F3T will help to improve the vehicle research and development 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
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. Five innovative manufacturing projects were awarded a total of $23.5 million by the Department of Energy in March to advance clean manufacturing and help U.S. companies increase their competitiveness.
I think that innovations in manufacturing are quite rare and under focused. By optimizing the manufacturing process and tools, a given company can save a lot of money on manufacturing its products, and then add more features to those products for the same given cost. Do you think that French automotive manufacturers for example should invest more in manufacturing innovation? How are compared the cost saving done on manufacturing side with those done on engineering side?