I recently had the opportunity to visit Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, and got a behind the scenes tour of their 3D printing and digital prototyping studio. What they’re doing with these technologies is truly impressive. But one thing they didn’t have ready to show me was their newly announced Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T).
This advanced manufacturing process allows Ford to produce mockups and prototypes of actual sheet metal forms in a fraction of the time of traditional techniques. F3T uses a robotic forming tool that uses a pair of stylus-type tools to work a flat piece of sheet metal back and forth to give it form. The system is loaded with CAD data for the part that’s required, and then cranks out actual metal components in a matter of hours.
Here’s a brief video overview of the process:
Ford claims this process will allow them to produce prototype pieces from start-to-finish in just a couple of days or less, whereas the current process of creating custom dies could take two to six months. In addition, the F3T process eliminates the costs of producing expensive prototype dies.
At this point, F3T is still in the development stages, but Ford hopes to refine the process and put it into regular use in the not-too-distant future. While the technology is currently ideal for low-volume production, it’s possible it could lead to advancements in production applications down the road – perhaps even in the form of end-user vehicle customization.