Ford develops sheet metal fast forming technology for prototyping
Ford is developing a flexible manufacturing process for rapidly forming sheet metal parts, allowing to cut costs and times for low volume production applications.
Once fully developed, the Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T) will allow for lower costs and ultrafast delivery times for prototypes that require sheet metal parts – up to three business days versus two to six months needed with conventional methods.
Automotive applications include prototyping, concept vehicles and vehicle personalization.
Through this process, a piece of sheet metal is clamped around its edges and formed into a 3D shape by two stylus-type tools working in unison on opposite sides of the sheet metal blank.
Similarly to a digital printer, 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, and it often takes 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.
Benefits of F3T include:
- Low cost: Geometric-specific forming dies are completely eliminated, along with the high cost and long lead time associated with die engineering, construction and machining
- Fast delivery time: 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 – up to approximately 60 times longer than the potential turnaround time for F3T
- Flexibility: 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
F3T has also 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.
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.