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Ford presents a compelling case for 3D printing in business

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3D printing is one of those alluring parts of the technology world that has people bubbling with ideas of what they can and will print.

But the time, cost and varying quality of current consumer 3D printers has meant they have yet to take the hobby and craft market by storm.

You are more likely to find 3D printers being used by startups to create cheap and cheerful prototypes; some even use 3D printing to create prosthetic limbs that are markedly cheaper and faster to produce than current alternatives.

Arguable it is in the business world, from startups to large enterprises, where 3D printing will have the most impact in the near future.

Case in point would be Ford’s use of industrial 3D printers to create prototype parts to inform the design of its next range of cars.

The car maker uses 3D printing to bring to life sketched designs and 3D models of car parts created with computer-assisted design software.

The printers can rapidly and cheaply produce plastic prototypes of car parts (pictured below), such as steering wheels, gear sticks, grilles and various other bodywork parts, all of which can be assessed in the physical world by engineers and designers.

Previously the process for complex parts would be carried out using clay models that required specific tooling, moulds and specialist technicians.

This meant producing prototypes could take months, depending on the complexity of the part, as well as cost Ford a hefty amount.

Ford 3D printed car parts

While Ford still uses clay models to create scale versions of its cars and less complex car parts, it now uses laser 3D printing to create detailed plastic prototypes within days or hours, saving the firm time and money, and giving its engineers and designers more scope to optimise each part for the car.

Ford is probably a few years away from creating mass market 3D printed cars, but with 3D printing allowing for the creation of metal and plastic models, it could only be a matter of time before cars are constructed mostly from printed parts.

23 Nov 2015

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