How 3D printing is shaping car production

Ford breaks the mould in production of tools and parts

Mark Smith, an engineering technologist at Ford, cleans off a newly made component.

Courtesy Ford Motor Company

Mark Smith, an engineering technologist at Ford, cleans off a newly made component.

Engineers need parts and tools when they develop a vehicle, but if they’re working on a brand-new technology, the ones they require may not yet exist. Ford tackles the problem by quickly building its own on a 3D printer.

“People come to me and want something designed for a test,” says Kevin Sowles, a technologist at Ford’s Beech Daly Technical Center in Michigan. “If we can’t find the tool, I’ll make it for them.”

The item is first designed using computer-aided design (CAD) software. The digital information then goes to the appropriate 3D printer to produce the item. It’s much faster than older methods, especially if more than one copy of a tool is needed. Prior to 3D printing, the method could include making a prototype, using it to produce a mould, and then finally casting the tools themselves.

Most of the tools the department makes are used exclusively for in-house vehicle testing, although it has produced prototype tools and machine parts for the final assembly line as well. When the company discontinued the F-150 pickup truck’s steel body in favour of an aluminum one, the factory needed specialized tools to work with the new metal, some of which were developed in the 3D printing shop. During the process of setting up the new assembly lines, the shop could quickly reproduce a component if it broke during the preliminary test runs.

Big at auto shows

The department also makes auto parts, but only for prototypes and show cars, not for production vehicles. “We made the grille and bumper for the new F-150 for wind tunnel testing and design aids,” Sowles says. “We also made the components for the 30-way power seat on the Lincoln Continental (concept car). Those concept cars you see at the auto shows have an unbelievable amount of 3D printing in them. We have a shop that’s set up specifically for that.”

Keeping the 3D printing in-house is also essential to keeping the wraps on upcoming projects. “We’re working on our 2019 to 2020 designs,” Sowles says. “A lot of it is confidential and we don’t want that out, even to our most trusted suppliers.” The direct line between the 3D printing and the engineering department is also faster than sending the designs out to a third-party supplier to produce. In some cases, items can be produced from scratch within hours.

On occasion, the department does outside projects of its own, including some reproduction reptiles. “We’ve done some work to support community services, and we’ve had requests from museums,” Sowles says. “We made replicas of dinosaurs that they paint and put on display, and they lock the original artifacts away.”


• Some parts made by the 3D process are used only for visual reference, while others must be functional, such as engine or transmission parts used in durability testing.

• 3D printing isn’t unique to Ford, but various automakers use the technology differently depending on their needs.

• The department’s various printers use plastic or photo-sensitive resin, or sand for casting items in metal.

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