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Ford fabricates with ‘free-form’ technology

Keywords: Tags  Ford Motor, free-form fabricating technology, forming sheet metal parts, prototypes, concept cars

CHICAGO — Ford Motor Co. has developed a new manufacturing technology that has the potential to reduce costs and delivery time for sheet metal parts needed in small quantities.

The system—Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology—is especially helpful for fast prototyping, the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker said.

The new machinery can clamp a piece of sheet metal around its edges and form it into a three-dimensional shape using two stylus-type tools working in unison on opposite sides of the sheet metal blank.

After designers receive the computer-assisted design data for the part, computer-generated tool paths control the fabricating machine to form the sheet metal part into its final shape to the required dimensional tolerances and surface finish.

"As we forge ahead with cutting-edge technologies like flexible body shops, robotics, 3D printing and others, we can build better products more efficiently," said John Fleming, executive vice president for global manufacturing and labor affairs.

Traditional stamping processes are energy-intensive and often take several months for the first part to move from concept to production, Ford said. While such methods remain efficient for high-volume stamping, flexibility at reduced cost is required for low-volume production.

The Ford technology eliminates geometric-specific forming dies and can deliver a formed part in three days from the time the design parameters are completed.

Once fully developed, the technology will help improve the vehicle research and development process, allowing for more flexibility in quickly creating parts for prototypes and concept cars. Currently, creating a prototype die can take six to eight weeks, and developing a full prototype vehicle usually takes several months and up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Free-form fabricating could produce sheet metal parts for prototypes in just days.

Ford expects the technology will have broad applications inside and outside the auto industry.

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