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How big businesses like Ford make use of 3D printing to great benefit for themselves

Hello! In my previous article “”  I wrote about how 3D printing can help individuals, groups of enthusiasts and small companies to achieve their goals and create a successful business. At the same time I noted that although 3D printing helps greatly at the starting stage, when the budget is really tight and there are no guarantees the idea will be a success, most of those startups tend to switch from 3D printing their hardware to manufacturing them through the standard, conventional technologies like injection molding or machining as soon as they have the money for the necessary tooling and can be sure the investment will pay off, since it’s so much cheaper and faster than 3D printing the parts.

Does this mean 3D printing is only for those who can’t afford a factory of their own? Certainly not! In this article I’ll give you some examples of big and successful companies using 3D printing and explain why they’re doing it.

1. Fast prototyping.

Not unlike as it was with small companies and individuals, the first reason for using 3D printing is being able to move fast along the cycle of evolving your product. In our age of breathtakingly fast technological development, businesses need to be extremely flexible and to adapt fast to any change on the market, else they will be out of the competition in an eye blink.

On the other hand, when you’re a big company like Ford, making any changes to the design of your products is a very painful, long and costly process. Did I say “is”? I meant it was this way, before 3D printers started being used for this purpose. The biggest problem with prototyping when using conventional manufacture techniques was that you had to produce tools (machinery, forms and so on) to make every prototype, and then you would test it and see that it doesn’t really work as well as it should and you decide to make some changes to the design so that you need to do it all over again who knows how many times. Quite often producing the tooling for producing a part is very expensive and very time-consuming. And while these expenses are more than justified when the tooling will be subsequently used to manufacture whole batches of end product, they are far from being reasonable when you just need to test a new idea or to introduce a slight change to your prototype. Thus, instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on tooling for a prototype and wait a week for it to be finished, smart companies who know the value of being on the forefront of the market use 3D printing to make prototypes. For big metal parts, they can either 3D print them directly, or 3D print a mold from sand and then use this mold to produce a fully-functioning full-scale metal prototype, like on the video below:



Ford has come a long way in its aspiration to make the most out of emerging 3D printing technology. In the middle of Dearborn, Michigan, its 1,212-acre production complex accepts ships and trains full of glass, rubber and ore. With breathtaking efficiency, workers of the plant operate advanced machinery to transform those raw materials into trucks at an astonishing rate of one truck per minute. Just four miles away, outside of the town, is Ford’s 3D printing laboratory, where parts are produced at a rate of just a few parts per day, but that is where the way ideas are turned into vehicles is being transformed. Inside Ford’s 3D printing laboratory there are lots of 3D printers utilizing various technologies, mostly those of stereolithography, fused deposition modeling (FDM), 3D sand printing and selective laser sintering (SLS). With multiple 3D-printing machines working nearly 24/7, the place has become a kind of sandbox for Ford’s engineers where they can design new parts and even new types of parts that no one has ever thought of before due to the limitations of conventional production technologies.

Ford has printed well over half a million pats, saving millions of hours of work and billions of dollars, for where it costs $500,000 and takes 4-5 months to produce a prototype with conventional methods, producing the same prototype via 3D printing can be dome in a matter of days or even hours, costing much less besides.

“You can come up with a really optimized part at the end of the day,” says Paul Susalla, section supervisor of Rapid Manufacturing at Ford. “That’s all because of the speed with which we can produce the prototype parts without tooling.”

2. Producing miniatures.

When you want to test your idea or design or just demonstrate it in an effective way, but you don’t need to have a full-scale working model, you make a miniature. Take for instance architects. 3D printing miniatures has quickly become a necessity for architectural companies. When you are one among many architectural companies trying to sell their concepts to a potential customer, such detail as having a scaled 3D printed model of the future house or even block of houses can easily sway the client in your favor. It shows you’re serious about it and gives the client a good idea of what the result will be like.


Zprinted 3D architectural model that is helping promote Stockholmsarenan until the 30,000-seat sports and entertainment arena is completed in 2013 (CNW Group/Z Corporation)


3. Producing functional, extremely light-weight and durable parts.

The fact that 3D printing is still much slower and much more costly than traditional manufacturing techniques is not a hindrance when it is very important for the detail to be extremely light-weight or durable. For instance, it is a very large issue in aerospace industry.



3D printed parts, like this prototype of an optimized Airbus A380 bracket made of stainless-steel powder (right) as a replacement for the standard cast steel bracket (left), could save airplanes significant weight and therefore fuel costs, argues Northwestern University case study. (Photo credit: Airbus Group Innovations)

The costs of launching things into space using well-tested systems are high: from about $ 4,300 per kilogram for a Proton launch to about $ 40,000 per kilogram for a Pegasus launch. As for airplanes, 3D printing lighter and higher performance details for a plane can significantly reduce both the weight of the airplane and the manufacturing waste, thus saving money, materials and fuel, while simultaneously decreasing carbon emission.

And it is not only the matters of weight and durability that make 3D printing so useful in aerospace industry. It makes possible to produce complex shapes that either can’t be produced in conventional way altogether, or are even more costly to manufacture using standard technologies.

“The airline industry is an early adopter of 3-D printing,” said Masanet, the Morris E. Fine Junior Professor in Materials and Manufacturing at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “The main driver is that aircrafts require specialized lightweight metal alloys that can be very costly to process.”

Although everyone is still hesitant about 3D printed wings and engines, just by 3D printing various brackets, seat buckles, furnishings and hinges one could reduce the weight of an aircraft by as much as 7%.

The SAVING project states that a 3D printed titanium seat buckle could save $3 million over the lifetime of an aircraft.

Also, Mark Drela, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT stated that distributing engines on the edges of wings (something that can be possible thanks to 3D printing) can potentially decrease the weight of an aircraft by 50% and reduce fuel consumption by 20 %.

4. Customization

And here is the time to remember Ford again. Of course, Ford is by no means the only multi-million dollar corporation to employ 3D printing technology to its great benefit, but Ford understands the potential of 3D printing.

Ford has teamed with Carbon3D, a fast-rising 3D printing startup, envisioning that personalized car parts such as customized steering wheels will become the norm for the automobile production industry in the nearest future.

“In the future, there’s a lot to be said about having something customized,” said Ellen Lee, Ford’s team leader of additive manufacturing.

So those are a few reasons 3D printing technology is being more and more actively employed by big business. It looks like in the future 3D-printing will go much further, far beyond prototypes and production of some special details that are hard to produce using conventional methods. For instance, in automotive, dealer garages might use 3D printers to create replacement parts on the spot, which would eliminate the difficulties of logistics and storage of all the spare parts that might one day be used.


Thank you for reading this article!  If you have any questions, suggestions or comments, let me know in the comments section.

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