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Additive manufacturing - the material makes the difference

21 June, 2019

Ford relies on Desktop 3D printing to produce a variety of assembly tools, jigs and fixtures. The large variety of filaments with specific material properties offers many options. Ultimaker's open filament system enables material producers to provide industrial-grade materials with different properties. Smart Machines & Factories reports.

The automotive industry was one of the first industries to truly realise the benefits of 3D printing. Advanced technology has led to significant changes in the development, design, manufacturing and distribution processes of car manufacturers over the last decade. This results in safer and lighter products, new designs, lower costs and shorter development and manufacturing processes. A study by Allied Market Research shows that 3D printing increases the value of existing products and functionality in every way, making it indispensable in the automotive industry. The success story of 3D printing began with prototyping. Today, additive manufacturing processes have also arrived in other areas of the automotive industry and are developing their potential there. The development of individual tools for more efficient production is nowadays one of the most successful new applications of 3D printing in the automotive industry.

3D printing at Ford

Ford uses Ultimaker's desktop 3D printers to design and manufacture assembly tools such as jigs, fixtures and gauges. Tools with sometimes complex designs are produced cost-effectively, significantly faster and directly on site. A key factor in the use of desktop 3D printers is the open filament system. Using filaments with different material properties from various material manufacturers, the 3D-printed production tools can be individually adapted to the respective application and manufactured.

3D printing is also used in the pilot plant at Ford in Cologne. The plant has a complete small-series production facility with which the new vehicle designs are developed to series maturity. During the development of car models, engineers require a large number of custom-fit production tools, often designed for a specific task and model. The serial production of the Ford Focus alone requires more than 50 different assembly tools, which are initially developed in the Pilot Plant and later printed on site in all European plants. The creation and procurement of these tools via external contract manufacturers takes a lot of time, is cost-intensive and slows down the development process. To optimise the workflow, Ford's Additive Manufacturing Team decided to integrate desktop 3D printers from Dutch manufacturer Ultimaker into the workflow. "Ford chose Ultimaker because the quality and reliability of the print results are in optimal proportion to the costs”, says Lars Bognar, research engineer, Additive Manufacturing at Ford.

Because Ultimaker's open filament system enables 3D printing with a variety of manufacturer-independent materials, conventionally manufactured tools are replaced by lightweight, durable plastic tools.

A wide variety of tools

Especially the use of desktop 3D printers in the production of production equipment, tools and assembly aids shows the disruptive potential of the additive manufacturing process and has already brought about a paradigm shift. Especially in the case of assembly tools, the range of applications is not only very diverse but also particularly extensive. The advantage of desktop 3-D printing lies in the material. The large number of filaments and the wide range of material properties offers the right solution for practically every application. With only one additive manufacturing process, production equipment can be manufactured for the most diverse applications and requirements of the operating environment. The spectrum of filaments and their material properties is almost inexhaustible: strength, elasticity, temperature resistance, strength, resilience, durability in all desired variants. However, it is essential for the use of 3D printing that a material can be printed in sufficient quality and without loss of material properties.

Materials for the production line

Various filaments are used for production tools such as gauges, fixtures and jigs.

Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) is used, for example, in assembly tools that are applied to the surface of the vehicle. This elastic and flexible material prevents the already painted body from being scratched during use and is also used for 3D-printed protective covers. In addition, TPU is particularly durable and is suitable for components that are exposed to extreme loads or wear quickly. It's easy to print with it. A heated printing bed is not necessary and the shrinkage and distortion ratio is minimal.

The most popular standard filament is PLA (Polylactic Acid) because it is versatile and easy to print. Since PLA is brittle and can melt from 60°C, it is often used for models or prototypes. Ford uses the Tough PLA variant from Ultimaker, a technical PLA filament from the Dutch printer manufacturer, which is comparable to ABS in terms of robustness, but easier to handle. It is ideal for printing technical models with larger dimensions.

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene Copolymer) is a universal 3D printer filament. It is somewhat more flexible than PLA and is also characterised by better durability and temperature resistance. The pressure temperatures for ABS are between 210°C and 250°C and when cooled there is a risk that the component will warp. It is, however, ideally suited for tool handles or applications.

Nylon filaments convince by high resistance, strength, flexibility, low friction and corrosion resistance. Because of its ability to withstand mechanical stress, nylon is ideal for a wide range of 3D-printed tools, functional prototypes and mechanical components. Ford uses various nylon variants from well-known material suppliers to the automotive industry such as DSM, Clarion or BASF.

Function follows colour

Filaments such as PLA are available in many different colours. Different colours can indicate the use of the tool for the vehicle variants on the same production line. With the help of identification colours, the tools can be used depending on the model type, special edition, or to distinguish the vehicle side or certain subareas. A two-colour print - the top layer in white, the underlying layer in red - can indicate wear. As soon as the red layer becomes visible, this is an indicator to renew the tool. As banal as this may sound, these small measures make a significant contribution to error-free processes and increased efficiency in production.

Quality of printing

The optimal coordination of hardware, software and material is decisive for a high-quality print result. To meet the growing demand from the automotive industry for industrial filaments, Ultimaker is working with leading materials manufacturers to bring high-quality engineering plastics and composites for industrial 3D printing to market with Ultimaker printers. Ultimaker provides the material producers with software that contains the extensive knowledge from research and development as well as the company's printing materials. This enables material producers to develop and maintain material profiles. Users can use these materials reliably and easily on desktop 3D printers with open filament systems. The print profiles are preconfigured in the freely accessible Ultimaker Cura slicing software and made available there. There is no need to manually enter print parameters and users can print automatically by accessing pre-configured settings. The most demanding technical plastics can smoothly be used in industrial applications with Ultimaker printers.

Ultimaker currently cooperates with well-known companies such as DSM, BASF, DuPont Transportation & Advanced Polymers, Owens Corning, Mitsubishi, Henkel, Kuraray, Solvay and Clariant.

Further fields of application conceivable

The benefits of desktop 3D printing are obvious: comparatively low production costs in view of small piece quantities, less weight than conventionally manufactured tools and faster availability in the event of unplanned requirements. Compared to the costs for conventionally produced tools in cooperation with external partners, approx. 1000 Euro per tool is saved for printed assembly aids such as fixtures and jigs. Instead of an average of ten weeks for external contract design and manufacture, even complex assembly fixtures are now available within 10 days at the latest. Ford uses desktop 3D printers in all European plants. The development team in Cologne provides the design of the tools for other production sites, which can be printed directly on site within 24 hours.

In addition, the assembly aids are up to 70% lighter than conventional tools. At Ford alone, more than 50 different additive tools are used today in the series production of the Ford Focus. While additive manufacturing is currently used at Ford for the manufacture of production aids, the possibilities of other fields of application are also being opened up at the same time.

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