3-D printing is a helpful prototyping tool, but not as useful in mass production. Despite all the media attention devoted to this technology, it is actually quite expensive and slow, compared to more conventional injection molding. However, Ford is already testing 3-D printing technology with mass production in mind.
3-D printing is usually used in prototyping or making one-off parts. For other tasks, molds are manufactured and used to continuously produce consistent parts. However, Ford thinks that molds are actually limiting because they can only be so complex. So one reason why Ford is testing Stratasys Infinite Build 3-D printer is making parts lighter and stronger at the same time. Furthermore, this machine can be used to make tooling and, of course, prototypes, which can be tested just hours after their initial design. Finally, automotive brands sometimes need special parts that are only necessary for some models from their line-up. Manufacturing specialized molds for a couple of hundreds of parts is really not economically sustainable, so a 3-D printer could be used.
It will open doors for personalization options as well. Imagine ordering a car with a different shape spoiler on it — Ford cannot build a mold just for you, so 3-D printing is basically the only option. Furthermore, that spoiler can be more efficient, stronger and lighter, which brings many benefits in terms of performance and fuel efficiency. Ford is thinks that the industrial 3-D printer will benefit the production of race cars as well, bringing their price down and increasing speed of development phase. 3-D printing is a growing technology, which still has not hit its peak. In fact, it is predicted to continue growing, becoming more and more affordable. But Stratasys Infinite Build 3-D printer is different from desktop machines people can buy very inexpensively.
This 3-D printer is quite large and needs much less care than a conventional one if you look at the scale of production. It works much in the same way as your ordinary desktop tool, printing parts in layers little by little, but when it senses that material is coming to an end, a robotic arm automatically replaces it with a full canister. Stratasys Infinite Build 3-D printer can work for hours or even days unattended. Still, it is much too slow for actual mass production.
It will take some time until 3-D printing is a viable option for mass production. However, it is very useful for prototyping and low-volume production. Saving weight, money and making parts more intricate are just some of the advantages of 3-D printing technology, pushing it into automotive plants.