Ford explores a new dimension of auto-making

Ford is exploring how large one-piece parts could be printed for prototyping and future production vehicles, as the first automaker to pilot the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer.

Ford explores a new dimension of auto-making

Capable of printing parts of practically any shape or length, the Stratasys Infinite Build system could be a breakthrough for vehicle manufacturing, providing a more efficient, affordable way to produce tooling, prototype parts, or components at lower volumes, such as personalised car parts or specialised parts for race-cars.

3D printing could have immense benefits for automotive production, including the ability to produce lighter-weight parts, which may help improve fuel efficiency. A 3D-printed spoiler, for instance, may have half the weight of its metal-cast equivalent.

“With the Infinite Build technology, we are now able to print large tools, fixtures, and components, making us more nimble in design iterations,” said Ellen Lee, Ford technical leader for additive manufacturing research.

“We’re excited to have early access to Stratasys’ new technology in order to help steer the development of large scale printing for automotive applications and requirements.”

The new 3D print system is located at Ford’s Research and Innovation Centre in Michigan, USA.

An emerging technology for manufacturing As 3D printing becomes increasingly efficient and affordable, companies are employing this emerging technology for manufacturing applications in everything from aerospace, to education, to medicine.

Wider adoption in 3D printing has been driven by recent technology advances and new areas of application and government support, according to Global Industry Analysts Inc. By 2020, the global market for 3D printing is expected to reach $9.6bn, the organisation reported.

But how does it work? Specifications for the part are transferred from the computer-aided design program to the printer’s computer, which analyses the design.

Then, the device goes to work, printing one layer of material at a time — in this case, plastic — then gradually stacking the layers into a finished 3D object.

When the system detects that the raw material or supply material canister is empty, a robotic arm automatically replaces it with a full canister. This allows the printer to operate for hours or days while unattended.

Though 3D printing isn’t yet fast enough for high-volume production manufacturing, it is a cost-efficient way to produce parts only needed at low volumes. In addition, when not limited by the constraints of mass production processes, components can be designed to function more efficiently.

Using traditional methods, an engineer would create a computer model of the part and wait for months for prototype tooling to be produced.

The VW Buzz was a hit at the Detroit show in January.

The VW Buzz was a hit at the Detroit show in January.

With 3D printing, Ford can print the same part in days at a significantly reduced cost. For example, a prototype for a new inlet manifold could be produced over a couple of days as opposed to several months, at an order of magnitude lower cost.

More consolidation

BMW CEO Harald Krueger said the big investments needed for next-generation drivetrains and digital business models were likely to spur further consolidation in the wake of PSA Group’s purchase of Opel from General Motors.

“The investments that are needed and whether every company has the resources remains to be seen,” said Mr Krueger at the Geneva show.

“For everybody the challenge is huge, with the focus on electro-mobility, digitalisation and autonomous driving.

“We are large enough that we can fund our future investment needs on our own,” Krueger said, adding smaller companies may need to find new partners, a step that could lead to more deals.

But takeovers and mergers are difficult to pull off, he said.

The Jeep Blackhawk

The Jeep Blackhawk

“The backbone of a successful cooperation is creating a real win-win for both companies. It needs to happen within a reasonable time-frame. It will not work when one party profits from the deal after two years, and the other only after eight years.”

BMW’s engineers in Munich are working on a new electric Mini which could be built in Germany, the Netherlands or the UK in the wake of Britain’s exit from the EU, Mr Krueger said.

“It can be produced in several locations because of the vehicle architecture,” he said.

BMW is looking at Oxford in England, Born in the Netherlands, and Leipzig and Regensburg in Germany as potential production locations, he said.

Key driver

Volvo unveiled its new XC60 SUV at the Geneva auto show, the latest launch in a sweeping overhaul of its model line-up under Chinese ownership that will be key to driving sales and earnings ahead of a possible listing.

Despite being launched almost a decade ago, the original XC60 has remained popular among buyers and been the automaker’s best-selling model since 2009.

It accounts for roughly a third of Volvo’s sales, leaving the new model with big shoes to fill as the carmaker looks to expand its niche in a premium market dominated by larger players such as Mercedes and BMW.

The Adventure 4x4 is what happens when German tuning company Brabus gets its hands on the Mercedes 4x4

The Adventure 4x4 is what happens when German tuning company Brabus gets its hands on the Mercedes 4x4

“The XC60 is in one of the hottest premium segments globally, so getting the execution and launch right is imperative for the growth of the brand,” said Bill Rinna, senior manager for North American forecasts at consultancy LMC Automotive.

“Globally, we expect the new XC60 to sell 175,000 units annually. Its two main competitors are not standing still however, as both the Audi Q5 and BMW X3 have or will be getting updates of their own.”

Volvo sold just over 161,000 XC60s last year.

Over the past couple of years, the company has begun delivering new models developed since its purchase by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group from Ford in 2010, including the larger XC90 SUV and a new 90-series.

Volvo is banking on a joint platform developed under Geely’s ownership for all but its smallest models — key to keeping down costs and improving flexibility for a small carmaker such as Volvo.

Later this year, it is also launching the XC40 compact SUV, aiming to further capitalize on a strong market for SUVs.

“Now we are really entering into a segment that should deliver volume,” Volvo Car Group CEO Hakan Samuelsson said.

“Before the end of the year we will have the biggest line-up of SUVs we’ve ever had.”

After struggling under Ford, sales at one of Sweden’s largest companies by sales and staff have risen sharply, hitting a record 534,332 cars last year.

Samuelsson has said he expects another record in 2017, the fourth straight if achieved, on the way to an annual target of 800,000 cars in the medium term.

The new XC60 will be delivered with a range of powertrains, including a plug-in hybrid version, with production set to begin in mid-April at the carmaker’s plant in Torslanda, on the outskirts of Gothenburg in western Sweden.

A semi-autonomous driver assistance system, which handles steering, acceleration and braking on well-marked roads at speeds up to 130km/h, will be available as an option, it added.

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