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Ford creates sheet metal prototypes in hours instead of weeks

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July 8, 2013

Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology produces sheet metal prototypes in hours instead of days or weeks

Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology produces sheet metal prototypes in hours instead of days or weeks

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Stamping sheet metal is an efficient form of manufacturing, capable of cranking hundreds or thousands of items an hour. The annoying thing is that making new stamping dies is a long, costly process. This is bad enough when it comes to retooling a factory, but creating prototypes for new products can leave designers waiting weeks. The Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan has taken a page from the 3D printing handbook and is developing a new way of forming sheet metal that allows designers to create prototypes in hours instead of weeks.

In design work, making a special die can take months from first design to finished product. The Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T) gets around this bottleneck by eliminating dies. Instead, the patented process uses a sort of embossing similar to a 3D printer. Like a printer, F3T takes a CAD file and uses it to form a product. The difference is that where a printer adds layers of materials, the F3T gradually presses the sheet metal into shape.

It does this by clamping a piece of sheet metal in place, after which a pair of computer-controlled styluses press from opposite sides and move about line by line to form the metal into the desired shape. A computer controls the path of the styluses, which also form the metal to specified dimensional tolerances and surface finish.

According to Ford, F3T introduces a high degree of flexibility into what is otherwise a time consuming process with the ability to produce a sheet metal prototype in three days. For some jobs, it can be a matter of hours.

Ford sees a great deal of potential in F3T. The company claims that it can not only make design work faster and cheaper, it can also make custom orders much easier, so bespoke car bodies would be much more common. In addition, Ford sees applications in the aerospace, defense, transportation and appliance industries.

The video below outlines the capabilities of F3T.

Source: Ford

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About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy
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11 Comments

I think that is really cool. I agree it has a lot of potential.

BigGoofyGuy

Great idea! I hope they can make desktop versions:)

MBadgero

Imagine custom panels for any vehicle and custom builds.... Amazing.

Mana Leituala

Very cool. But it might not end up saving money as the engineers chase perfection.

Slowburn

This is great for making metal sculptures.

MrGadget

Great new tool for prototyping and lowest volume production applications. The comment in the video about this potentially replacing stampings is somewhat ridiculous though. Neat stuff none the less.

Siegfried Gust

Great idea, but I can't grasp how this works on anything but a light gauge steel. It seems it lacks support for the material ?

Jay Finke

The concept of readily producing a light-gauge shape that can be transformed into a stamping mold is quite interesting. I too wondered about how the sheet is stabilized enough to be worked by only two "styluses".

owlbeyou

Very cool tech!

D Scott Standard

What's the difference between that and the dieless NC that exist for several years now? http://www.aminonac.ca/product_e_dieless.asp

Mark Szymanski

It's cool to watch automation become more and more efficient. So many people are consistently finding better ways of doing things. I think that this development could have a lot of potential. It's pretty inspiring to think of the humble beginnings of Ford and compare it to what they have become today. Thanks for the interesting read!

Pierre Fortin
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