Ford and ExOne make a material difference

Manufacturing is a bit at a crossroads. And while no incidents have driven the current need for action, there’s no denying that supply chains are in tatters and customer demands are shifting. It’s time for businesses to make tough choices.

Strategic investments in additive manufacturing could help. “The supply chain has become globalized to benefit consumers and improve the quality of life for many people. But it went a bit far, ”John Hartner, CEO of ExOne, told IndustryWeek. “There has recently been a sort of awakening combining tariff wars, the pandemic, incidents like the Suez Canal, as well as the realization that local production, when carried out profitably and sustainably, is more efficient and more responsive to consumer demand. This is all the more true as the demand has become more and more personalized and unique. “

The disruption forces people to pay attention to technologies such as additive adjustment, Hartner explains. “The next three to five years are going to be important for the additive to get enough validations that broaden adoption. Fortunately, the technology is really taking off,” he says. “A dedication to innovations in materials and processes can only help advance one’s cause.”

An innovative commitment

Innovation is often the direct result of a commitment to find better ways to solve existing problems. And having an interest in finding ways to take advantage of additives is nothing new to Ford Motor Co. The global automaker is a long-time user and one of the first to embrace 3D printing, purchasing the third system ever made. in the late 1980s. Its application of technologies shifted from simple visual prototypes – to prototypes robust enough for physical testing – to applications to support manufacturing operations – to now limited low volume production parts taking into account. loads the F-150 Raptor and the Shelby GT500 Mustang.

“We have several additive manufacturing facilities with professional grade systems in North America and Europe that supply tens of thousands of parts each year. We have installed systems in engineering environments and Maker Spaces all over the world to enable engineers to learn and develop applications, ”says Harold Sears, technical manager of additive manufacturing at Ford Motor Co. at IndustryWeek . “We are expanding the use of these technologies in our manufacturing environments to support and improve certain production processes. This has resulted in at least one printer being created in almost every manufacturing facility around the world, and many facilities have more than one. ”

According to Sears, Ford has also launched internal training programs for UAW workers and employees to help them better understand these technologies and apply them effectively and efficiently. “We will continue to build on this foundation and explore business value and value for our customers around development opportunities towards more complex, larger and more physically demanding applications,” he said.

Collaborative output

The fruits of Ford’s commitment to additive innovation shine when one examines the results of a project co-funded with ExOne. The goal of the collaboration was to bring together a team of engineers, materials scientists and manufacturing experts to develop a now patent-pending process for fast and reliable 3D binder jet printing and sintering of aluminum which offers properties comparable to those of die-casting.

The resulting process is expected to increase Ford’s efficiency by enabling the company to affordably produce complex parts specifically designed for additive manufacturing, resulting in reductions in size and weight, consolidation of parts and improved performance. The new innovation was born from the binder blasting process, widely regarded as the fastest metallic 3D printing method for high volume output. It uses a digital file to quickly inkjet a binder in a bed of powder particles such as metal, sand or ceramic to create a solid part, one thin layer at a time. When printing metals, the final bonded metal part must be sintered in an oven to fuse the particles together into a solid object. The heating process enhances the strength and integrity of the metal, and while the process of sintering stainless steel is well understood, achieving high densities above 99% is a breakthrough in the aluminum industry.CEO of ExOne, John Hartner

“This is a breakthrough in the manufacture of 3D printed and sintered parts for the automotive industry,” says Sears. “Although the 3D printing process is very different from stamping body panels, we have a better understanding of how aluminum behaves today, as well as its value in light vehicles. High-speed aluminum 3D printing opens the door to other opportunities that we are only just starting to look at due to the ability to fabricate complex parts with aluminum that were previously not possible. It really opens doors to other opportunities. “

Although it is a very common material in the automotive industry using traditional production methods, 6061 is a material which has been difficult for the additive due to its reactive nature. “However, with the involvement of Ford, we have a customer who has real parts, who has done real metallurgy, and who has certified the materials and microstructure to meet their strict requirements,” says Hartner. “Developing a fast, affordable and easy way to 3D print aluminum with traditional material properties is a critical step in making more products lighter and delivering a more sustainable future.”

Sears adds that material evaluations are extremely important when it comes to exploring and expanding additional applications for 3D printing / additive manufacturing. “Automotive grade materials have been a challenge for the additive manufacturing industry. Exposure to UV rays, salts, fuels, solvents, etc. have limited applications, ”Sears says. “We don’t need materials that are exactly the same as those used in traditional manufacturing; we need materials that are tough enough to meet our demanding applications and environments. As suitable materials become more available and printing processes improve, more applications will be considered. “

Look ahead, Hartner is understandably encouraged by the progress. “We have great processes for scaling the printing and sintering process,” he says. “We wouldn’t have announced something like this if we hadn’t had a line of sight to offer this for high volume applications. It is very encouraging to progress on reactive materials.

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Perry Perrie

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