Inside Ford’s newly constructed Advanced Manufacturing Centre, an engineer stands in front of a 3D printing machine churning out brake parts for the company’s soon-to-be-introduced Shelby Mustang GT500. Across the room, two team members strap on virtual reality headsets to design and simulate production lines, while another is working alongside a collaborative robot, programming a safer way to install a vehicle part.
These technologies are no longer simply a Hollywood vision of the future. For Ford, they are critical tools and technologies to improve the complex and demanding task of building cars and trucks.
Ford is also driving the future of 3D printing in the automotive industry. The Advanced Manufacturing Centre has some 23 3D printing machines and is working with 10 additive manufacturing companies. This allows Ford experts to develop applications with different materials – from sand to nylon powder, to carbon. The company says one application currently under development has the potential to save more than $2 million.
The Shelby Mustang GT500, to be launched at the North American International Auto Show in January, has two 3D printed brake parts, while the F-150 Raptor built for China includes a 3D printed interior part. As 3D printing becomes more affordable, additively manufactured components will become more prevalent.
3D printed parts also help employees improve vehicle quality. Assembly line workers at Ford’s Michigan assembly plant, where the company builds the Ranger pick-up, use five different 3D printed tools.
Ford, which purchased the third 3D printer ever made in 1988, now has 90 3D printers globally, producing both parts and tools. On the shop floor, workers team with advanced manufacturing experts to identify ways of saving the company time and money. This activity includes how to 3D print replacement parts to keep lines running, instead of waiting for parts that can take weeks to be fabricated.
While millions of children catch fictional animals or capture portals in popular augmented reality video games, Ford is banking on augmented and virtual reality to help it simulate and design assembly lines.
Ford experts don specialised gaming equipment and configure a virtual reality production line without ever leaving the Advanced Manufacturing Centre, allowing them to identify potentially hazardous maneouvres and fine-tune workflows long before an assembly line is constructed. Experts also develop special experiences in augmented and virtual reality to permit Ford manufacturing teams to work collaboratively in plants around the world. This capability enables people on different continents to work in the same virtual experience simultaneously.
Ford has also made significant advances during the last few years with collaborative robots – known as ‘cobots’ – with more than 100 of them in 24 Ford plants globally. For instance, in the company’s Livonia transmission plant, a cobot performs a job that was so ergonomically difficult for employees that they could only perform the task for one hour at a time.