If you’ve watched the news at all in 2012, you might have heard the phrase “3D printing.” It’s the latest craze, don’tcha know. All the cool kids are doing it. And now, so is Ford.
According to a press release, Ford Motor Company engineers are using 3D printing technology– essentially the desktop equivalent of a CNC machine that shapes plastic media– to test out new parts designs.
Ford Technology Advisory Board Member and Senior Technical Leader for Open Innovation K. Venkatesh Prasad said, “We’ve been shifting from the tangible world to the computer world, and the reality is that a hybrid model works best. There is nothing like having a tangible prototype, but it has always been time consuming and expensive to create.
“Now, at the press of a button, you can have the product or component at your fingertips,” he continued. “With a model in one hand, you can then input your changes back into the computer model. The best decisions are made from the highest quality engineer and at the best pace.”
Ford is using the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, marketed mostly as a relatively easy-to-use tool for do-it-yourself types. It connects to a computer via standard USB cable and operates, true to the “3D printer” moniker, much like a standard printer would. The big difference, of course, is that you “print” things you designed in a 3D modeling program rather than boring text documents, photos, or spreadsheets.
According to the Ford press release, the Motor Company is mostly using the Thing-O-Matic to print prototypes of interior bits, such as shift knobs, gauges, and display modules. So next time you hear us report about a slick new Ford gauge cluster or satnav display, consider its origins may very well lie within the humble Thing-O-Matic.
One might predict it’s only a matter of time before car companies move beyond mocking up small parts, as Ford is currently doing, and start toying with the idea of doing preliminary design studies for whole car exteriors via 3D printing. Once past the paper-and-pen (or mouse-and-screen) sketch stage, many cars are still sculpted by hand from clay during the early design phases. Perhaps the same 3D printing technology that drives the Thing-O-Matic can one day be extended to a machine that sculpts scale clay models of entire cars.