The Ford Motor Company is currently developing a new and unique short run “stamping” project. It is part of a three-year, $7.04 million, United States Department of Energy grant to advance next-generation, energy-efficient manufacturing processes. This effort is led by Ford, Boeing, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Penn State-Erie. This grant is part of a project to advance clean manufacturing technologies and help U.S. companies increase their global competitiveness.
Ford has become extremely good at stamping sheet metal parts. Sadly, from the time the design is completed on the CAD station it can take many weeks until the actual stamping of the part is finished. To reduce lead times in prototyping, Ford has created a new rapid process they call the Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T). This is a new form of highly flexible manufacturing technology. It has the potential to reduce costs and delivery times for sheet metal parts required in low-volume productions. Although it is not an additive process, it acts very similarly to other 3D printing technologies.
The F3T rapid stamping process begins with a Computer Assisted Design (CAD) model. Once the model has been validated, a Computer Numeric Control (CNC) tool path is created for the part. This tool path is then sent to the controller of a dual arm robot. This robot turns a two dimensional piece of metal into an identical replica of the three dimensional model. The sheet metal is clamped around its edges and formed into a three dimensional shape, by forming with two robotic arms.
Each arm holds tools and they work together on both sides of the metal blank, pushing and forming it into shape. This new prototyping machine functions spatially in a similar way to digital printing, so much so, that many people have begun to include it within the global advancements of 3D printing technology. For the Ford the long-term goal is to use this process for eventual mass production of metal parts across the globe.
This innovative F3T process has the potential to allow for greater personalization options. It is expected to have broad applications inside and outside of the automotive industry. Currently, it is still in an infant stage. The machines are not fast enough for mass production, but they are exceptionally situated for more low-volume production applications.
Short-run metal stamping or the new F3T 3D forming processes are best used for the following sized jobs:
- Competitive production and repeat runs up to 25,000 parts
- Prototype Runs
- Test runs (500 pieces or smaller)
- Small and medium application runs
- Quoted runs as high as 100,000 pieces
Shortening initial lead times and development from models to prototype parts have become an essential priority for many companies. Ford’s hybrid design and others now require machinery capabilities and personnel expertise beyond standard stamping methods. The ability to create a customized production plan is of great benefit. The goal with hybrid production moving forward will be to analyze the best methods for producing a part and to find the one that fits a customer’s objectives.
Below is the video Ford uploaded to their YouTube channel promoting their new process.