In the middle of Dearborn, Michigan, Ford’s 1,212-acre River Rouge complex accepts entire trains and ships full of ore, glass and rubber. With breathtaking efficiency, thousands of workers operate massive machinery to transform the raw materials into Ford trucks at a rate of one per minute. Four miles away, just outside of town, sets of hyperactive lasers are tracing abstract shapes and turning liquid polymers into solids at a rate of only a few parts per day. But in the process, they’re transforming the way Ford turns ideas into vehicles.
In 1986, 3D printing was called stereolithography, and Ford bought SLA 3, the third 3D printer ever made. The machine couldn’t produce a single truck, but it could be programed to create an infinite variety of shapes and parts. It didn’t take long to see that the invention could be used to create new prototype part designs faster and more efficiently than ever.
Today, a variety of new technologies have joined stereolithography. Inside Ford’s 3D printing lab, we’re also using fused deposition modeling (FDM), selective laser sintering (SLS) and 3D sand printing. The processes create new parts layer by layer, stacking up cross sections like a deck of playing cards. Scattered throughout the shop are also 3D-printed hand tools that engineers have invented to help them build new parts. With the 3D printing machines running nearly 24-7, the facility has become a kind of virtual sandbox for engineers to design new types of parts never before thought possible.