Ford Motor Co. is developing a new form of manufacturing technology with the potential to reduce costs and delivery time for sheet metal parts needed in smaller quantities. The development is based on Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T), a unique manufacturing process developed at the Ford Research and Innovation Center.
The project is part of a three-year, $7-million U.S. Department of Energy grant to advance next-generation, energy-efficient manufacturing processes. 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."
Through the process, a piece of sheet metal is clamped around its edges and formed into a 3-D shape by two stylus-type tools working in unison on opposite sides of the sheet metal blank. After the CAD data of a part are received, computer-generated tool paths control the F3T machine to form the sheet metal part into its final shape to the required dimensional tolerances and surface finish.
Currently, traditional stamping processes are energy-intensive, often taking several months for the first part to move from concept to production. While traditional processes remain the most efficient method for high-volume stamping, efficiencies for low-volume production can be achieved with the flexibility F3T provides.
Geometric-specific forming dies are completely eliminated with the process, along with the high cost and long lead time associated with die engineering, construction and machining.
The technology aims to enable the delivery of a sheet metal part within three business days from the time the CAD model of the part is received. With the current technology, parts are delivered anywhere from two to six months using conventional methods.
Once fully developed, F3T will help to improve the vehicle research and development process, allowing for more flexibility in quickly creating parts for prototypes and concept cars. Currently, creating a prototype die can take six to eight weeks, and developing a full prototype vehicle usually takes several months and up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. F3T could produce sheet metal parts for prototypes in just days for essentially no cost.
In addition, F3T has the potential to allow for greater personalization options, adding the ability for buyers to customize vehicle bodywork. F3T is also expected to have broad applications outside of the automotive industry, including use in the aerospace, defense, transportation and appliance industries.
For more information, visit www.ford.com.