Ford have developed a machine to form sheet metal into car parts which reduces the time it takes to produce prototypes down to less than 3 days.
It usually takes from two to six months to create custom prototype parts using conventional methods but Ford’s Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T) allows for ultra-fast delivery times and reduced costs. Ford have patented this technology and are further developing it, hoping that it will take over from the slow process of making custom molds and dies for prototype production.
It functions in a similar way to a 3D printer in that a 3D model of the part is sent to the machine, but rather than a print head squirting out material, two robotic arms force the metal into the required shape. The flat piece of metal is clamped into the machine and each robotic arm has a very precise style point which work together from above and below the work piece to shape the metal into the required 3D form.
This process is ideally suited to prototype manufacture where slight changes to a part’s design is expected over the course of development. It is not practical or cost effective to product a new prototype at each stage using traditional methodes. But with the F3T machine each design can be physically produced in metal to see how it performs rather than relying on computer simulations.
Ford are still developing the technology and at the moment it is only suitable for prototype production applications, but it does have potential in other industries, such as aerospace and defence. It’s not yet known if F3T technology will become useful in the production of metal parts as current die and mold stamping can produce metal parts very quickly at a high volume. But it could be ideal for creating low-volume custom parts, perhaps a design specified by the customer for a custom personal vehicle option.
The project has received funding from a $7 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to advance next-generation and energy efficient production processes.