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Ford explores 3D printing, VR and cobots at $45M Advanced Manufacturing Center

Over one hundred years ago, the Ford Motor Company reinvented manufacturing with the introduction of the assembly line. Today, the company has continued to show its propensity for innovation, exploring and utilizing new technologies to reinvigorate vehicle production.

Recently, for instance, the Michigan-based automaker opened its new Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, MI. The new facility, reportedly worth $45 million, houses all types of new technologies—from additive manufacturing, to virtual reality, to collaborative robots—all aimed at bringing car manufacturing into the future.

According to Ford, these technologies are no longer limited to the realm of sci-fi, they are increasingly becoming critical tools for its automotive production. As evidence of this, a team of engineers at the Advanced Manufacturing Center are currently 3D printing brake parts for the upcoming Shelby Mustang GT500.

Ford Advanced Manufacturing Center

The future is additive

The $45 million facility itself is being run by a team of about 100 experts, who are leveraging advanced technologies for existing application and exploring new uses. In terms of the facility’s additive manufacturing capacity, Ford reports that it is running 23 3D printers and has partnered with 10 companies in the AM industry.

The variety of machines is enabling Ford to work with many types of processes and materials, including sand, nylon and carbon fiber composites. An unnamed application which is described as “in development” could reportedly help the company save considerable money—over $2 million.

The aforementioned Shelby Mustang GT500, which will be unveiled at the upcoming North American International Auto Show this January, is being fitted with 3D printed brake parts at the facility, while the company’s F-150 Raptor vehicle for the Chinese market features a 3D printed interior component. Down the line, more 3D printed parts are expected to be integrated into Ford’s vehicles.

Ford Advanced Manufacturing Center

Aside from 3D printing production parts, the in-house technology is also used to produce tools. For instance, Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant utilizes five different 3D printed tools to build the Ranger pickup. Notably, the 3D printed tools enabled Ford to reduce the car’s time-to-market drastically, cutting weeks from the timeline without sacrificing quality.

Outside of the Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, Ford operates many more 3D printers—a total of 90 globally—which it has invested in over the decades. Interesting fact: Ford actually purchased one of the first 3D printers ever made back in 1988.

Reinventing the assembly line

In addition to 3D printing, other new technologies, such as virtual reality and collaborative robots, are helping to update and optimize Ford’s century-old assembly line.

At the Advanced Manufacturing Center, AR and VR are being used to simulate and design assembly lines for the production of millions of vehicles. These technologies are also being used to enable Ford engineers to work together in virtual plants around the world.

Ford Advanced Manufacturing Center

“For instance, if a vehicle is intended to be produced globally, teams can work together to design optimal manufacturing workstations for all continents,” Ford writes. “This is advantageous because the technology allows teams from around the world to design a workstation for vehicle production as if they were standing in the same physical space.”

Collaborative robots—or cobots—have been of interest to Ford in recent years, and the company has installed over 100 of them across 24 plants. The robots in use are designed to work alongside people to take on tasks that may be physically difficult for humans. Because the cobots are safe to work alongside, Ford has also saved money by removing the need for safety cages that other types of robots require.

At the Advanced Manufacturing Center, specialists are investigating the use of cobots to identify any potential challenges before the robots are deployed in factories around the world. “While we are increasing our use of collaborative robots, we strongly believe there is a need for both people and robots,” said Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of Global Operations. “People are better at doing certain jobs, while robots are able to perform certain tasks, including those that are ergonomically taxing for people.”

Ford Advanced Manufacturing Center
(Photos: Ford Motor Company)
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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault moved from her home of Montreal, Canada to the Netherlands in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. It was during her time in Amsterdam that she became acquainted with 3D printing technology and began writing for a local additive manufacturing news platform. Now based in France, Tess has over two and a half years experience writing, editing and publishing additive manufacturing content with a particular interest in women working within the industry. She is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM industry.

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