ExOne Co. and Ford Motor Co. say they are on a path where 3D printing plays a bigger part in automotive manufacturing.
Last week, the additive manufacturing company and the automaker said they have developed a patent-pending process for binder jet 3D printing and sintering of aluminum. The process, they said, “delivers properties comparable” to conventional die casting.
For now, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford is not saying how the process might be deployed in the manufacturing of its vehicles.
However, Ford and North Huntingdon, Pa.-based ExOne have spent the last two years on the project. Each expects to file for individual and collaborative patents on the technology.
The companies say the process they have developed has the potential to create new designs of parts not possible with traditional manufacturing methods. It also may lead to increased use of aluminum in vehicles.
“There’s lots of interest in aluminum in the automotive industry right now due to its high strength and lightweight capabilities,” said Harold Sears, additive manufacturing technical lead for Ford’s manufacturing organization. “So, the interest is pulling this into additive manufacturing.”
The question is which method of additive to use. Automotive calls for high-volume production. Automakers, including Ford, have adopted 3D printing for some parts such as brackets for the Shelby Mustang GT 500 sports car. Automotive companies would like to extend additive.
Laser 3D printing “aren’t fast enough yet to really support a volume automotive application where it’s going to be several hundred parts potentially a year,” Sears said.
ExOne uses binder jetting, where an industrial printhead selectively deposits a liquid binding agent onto a layer of powder particles. The process is repeated layer by layer until a part is complete.
Binder jet technology is “much more capable of scaling, building multiple parts at the same time,” Sears said.
ExOne customers currently use the X1 25Pro metal binder jet system for production, with one customer now operating six of the systems for serial production.
ExOne and Ford have worked together since the 2000s. The current project between Ford and ExOne originated at SME’s 2019 RAPID + TCT show in Detroit.
“There were two engineers that went to our booth,” said Rick Lucas, ExOne’s chief technical officer. “And all of a sudden, we have a bunch of Ford people coming into our booth. And that led to several meetings and discussion. In fact, that’s when we started talking about what was possible and then having conversations with them.”
One key subject: “Whether we could do aluminum or not,” Lucas said.
Talks took place in the summer of 2019. In the second half of the year, ExOne and Ford “had a partnership and an outline for a program.”
For ExOne, the project presented challenges.
The company needed to determine “where we have to get our costs down in order to make a product that is competitive enough,” Lucas said.
ExOne also stretched its abilities to work with aluminum.
“There’s certainly a lot of risk,” he said. “I didn’t know if we could actually do it…If we could get aluminum to work, it would be a huge breakthrough on the tech side.
“To do the really high-volume types of manufacturing process and to do that with an additive technology, the volumes we’re talking just have never been done before.”
At Ford, the additive project raised the possibility of major changes in design and engineering. 3D printing typically enables new part shapes.
“The excitement is really around optimizing the design,” Sears said. “With traditional manufacturing technologies, we’re often constrained by that manufacturing process.”
With 3D printing, he said, “You sort of wipe the slate clean with your engineering people and you remove the handcuffs and say, ‘Be creative.’” We’re enabling better designs, more efficiencies, within your designs.”
The automaker also is adapting what it has learned from its previous additive efforts.
“We’re learning more about variability, how to control it from machine to machine, batch to batch and all those sorts of things,” he said. “It’s all about laying the foundation building to me.”