Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Sunday, December 28, 2014
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Ford Unveils Freeform Tool for Rapid Prototyping 

If we look back at some of the growing trends in manufacturing innovation, from additive manufacturing to virtual reality tools like the CAVE, the ultimate goal is to cut down on the one thing more valuable than money: time. And the latest tool being rolled out in Ford production plants is no exception.

The tool, called Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T), is a sheet metal process that has cut out the need for expensive die machining. Instead of stamping a die onto a sheet of metal in order to press it into a given shape, a piece of sheet metal is clamped to a frame by its edges while to stylus-like tools work on opposite sides to bend it into a given shape.

The project is part of a three-year, $7.04 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to advance next-generation, energy-efficient manufacturing processes. Led by Ford, other collaborators include Northwestern University, The Boeing Company, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Penn State Erie. Five innovative manufacturing projects were awarded a total of $23.5 million by the Department of Energy in March to advance clean manufacturing and help U.S. companies increase their competitiveness.

“The F3T sheet metal forming process is one of many advanced manufacturing technologies under development at Ford,” said Randy Visintainer, director of Ford Research and Innovation. “We developed this process during the past four years for small-scale applications in a laboratory setting, and the DOE award enables us to scale the process for larger applications and a full prove-out for manufacturing feasibility.”

While F3T can cut prototyping time down from months to days, Ford’s new technology will by no means replace dies and molds for high-volume stamping. In traditional metal stamping, once the dies are made, forming the sheet metal only takes seconds, which justifies the initial investment in machining the die, and allows for more sheets to be pressed as the time allotted increases.

The problem with stamping is that dies are expensive and can’t be produced quickly, which means that for prototypes and custom vehicles, investing the time and money for the mold or die just isn’t worth it, as it would hold up the entire process and add significantly to the expenses.

Machining a mold or die takes so long largely due to the machine’s requirements: it must have a program for the part in question, and the machine must be specially set up in order to execute it. But the die still needs to be heat treated, reground, polished, coated, and shipped to the factory before the metal stamping can begin.

An alternative process called electrical discharge machining (EDM) can also be used to machine a die by chipping away micron-by-micron with a CNC-controlled spark gap. It allows for the making of extremely sharp corners or perfectly square holes, but is also a lengthy process.

Thus Ford will be keeping the traditional metal stamping tools on their assembly lines, while the F3T will be allocated for prototyping.

In doing so, Ford will not only cut down on prototyping time, but is also allowing for greater flexibility and experimentation during the design process. For mass-produced vehicles, this means that engineers can test out more possibilities before committing to a design, and Ford could soon provide a more affordable outlet for customers interested in custom body work.

At the end of the day, what this adds is one more degree of design freedom, and just might open the door for more experimentation and creativity in the prototyping stage. While an engineer wouldn’t machine a die just to visualize a new design idea in person, they just might turn to a quickly made, inexpensive freeform fabricated part instead.

“As we forge ahead with cutting-edge technologies in manufacturing like flexible body shops, robotics, 3D printing, virtual reality and others, we want to push the envelope with new innovations like F3T to make ourselves more efficient and build even better products,” said John Fleming, executive vice president, global manufacturing and labor affairs. In the past year, Ford has also made news when it announced plans to build a complete, virtual factory that will utilize computer simulations to fine tune all of its production processes.

Ford anticipates that F3T will entice buyers with options for custom bodywork, but also sees its potential for applications in other industries, including aerospace, defense, transportation and appliance industries. And although Ford holds the patent on F3T, cold metal forming is still available by other means like hydroforming, which achieves the same effect through fluid pressure. And if Ford’s process proves as beneficial as the other time-saving technologies coming out the innovation pipeline, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes ubiquitous in automotive and aerospace factories the world over.

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