3D printing can be used on the automotive assembly line to make car parts, components, and prototypes that are more lightweight and have faster turnaround times, as well as production of replacement and spare parts. Several announcements today highlight the major efforts automakers are employing to bring additive manufacturing into their workflows.
Michigan-based Ford Motor Company is a big fan of 3D printing, and even piloted Stratasys’ Infinite Build 3D printer. In order to meet customer demand for the new models of its Lincoln Navigator and Ford Expedition SUVs, the company is increasing production of the vehicles by 25%, and using advanced manufacturing technologies including 3D printing to do it.
Ford is increasing the total investment in its Kentucky Truck Plant to $925 million, which will in turn ramp up the manufacturing line speed for the SUVs, which are two of the highest-priced vehicles that Ford sells.
The company’s automotive profit margins shrunk to 3.7% in the fourth quarter of 2017, down from 5.7% last year, so the company is also working to soothe investors and continue competing with rivals General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Joe Hinrichs, President of Global Operations for Ford, said, “The response from customers regarding our new full-size SUVs has been exceptional. Using a combination of Ford's advanced manufacturing and American hard work and ingenuity, we'll deliver more high-quality Lincoln Navigators and Ford Expeditions to customers than originally planned.”
The luxury Lincoln Navigators and Ford Expeditions are barely spending a week on the lot before they’re sold, and assembly line workers at the Kentucky Truck Plant are working overtime and weekend shifts to get the vehicles to customers as quickly as possible. But, the company’s additional investment and advanced manufacturing upgrades are helping to improve operational awareness.
400 new robots, including collaborative ones, were added to the facility – mostly in the body shop – during last year’s transformation. The robots keep employees safe from suffering repetitive-motion injuries, while also allowing the plant to increase line speed. A new robot lab in the plant also gives employees a place to troubleshoot issues and test out software changes, which saves on production time.
“We can sell every single vehicle we can produce here. These are high-margin vehicles, so that is very meaningful,” Hinrichs said during a tour of the company's Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville.
A data analytics hub features seven big-screen TVs that provide plant officials with minute-by-minute updates on the production line; these updates also help workers be proactive and efficient when it comes to pending parts shortages, so they can visit the plant’s huge spare parts 'œvending machine' to quickly find the part they need and keep inventory where it’s supposed to be.
The Kentucky Truck Plant also installed a new 3D printer, so workers can inexpensively print individual parts for tools that help keep the plant’s efficiency up. While manufacturing a prototype part with traditional methods can cost over $250,000 just in tooling, and take 8 to 16 weeks, it only costs up to a few thousand dollars, and just hours or days, to 3D print the part.Ford isn’t the only automaker announcing increased usage of 3D printing: the Porsche Classic division, dedicated to classic vehicles, is using the technology to produce spare parts for rare vehicles that may not be readily available.
Collectors of rare classic cars who can’t get their hands on spare parts may be forced to take the car out of action. That’s why Porsche turned to 3D printing to produce very rare parts that are only required in small quantities.
The division’s range includes roughly 52,000 parts; if the stock for one goes down, the company reproduces it with original tools, though new tools may be required for larger quantities. Unfortunately, using new tools to make small production batches of limited supply parts would be inefficient. Porsche Classic evaluated different manufacturing processes, and realized that 3D printing is a good economic alternative for small batch production of unavailable parts, like the clutch release lever on the rare Porsche 959.
This component is made from grey cast iron, and is typically in low demand, as less than 300 of the super sports cars were produced. Porsche used SLM 3D printing to make the release lever, which passed a pressure test with a