Ford is going all-in with 3D printing technology, which is a move that could benefit vehicles designed for full autonomy in the future. The company announced on Monday that it’s going to try out the Stratasys Infinite Build 3D printer at its Dearborn research and innovation center to build some parts of its cars. The 3D-printed parts, like spoilers or other cosmetic body pieces, could be lighter than their traditional counterparts, allowing Ford to create prototype components faster than ever before.
“With the Infinite Build technology, we are now able to print large tools, fixtures, and components, making us more nimble in design iterations,” Ellen Lee, Ford technical leader for additive manufacturing research, said in a statement released Monday. “We’re excited to have early access to Stratasys’ new technology in order to help steer the development of large scale printing for automotive applications and requirements.”
The technology will help reduce weight on vehicles. German company APWorks’s Light Rider electric motorcycle, revealed last year, weighs only 80 pounds, drastically less than other electric motorbikes, which often weight around 500 pounds. Ford says its 3D printed spoiler could weigh less than half of the metal version.
These weight reductions can help increase fuel efficiency, but in the case of electric vehicles, it could also help reduce range anxiety. More mileage out of each charge will result in electric car owners worrying less about where they’ll be able to charge their car on journeys.
Ford’s experiment could work great for self-driving cars. Local Motors, the company behind the Olli autonomous bus, used 3D printing in its design. Olli can ferry 12 passengers around short distances, and the company sees it as a blueprint for the future of autonomous transportation. Local Motors also 3D printed a drone that can scout out potential traffic jams, aiding autonomous vehicles by helping them plan their routes.
Alongside being lightweight and easy to make, 3D-printed parts are useful in autonomous vehicles as the statistical reduction in crash rates will mean bulky safety components might not be needed in the future. Elon Musk claimed that semi-autonomous Autopilot updates would already make the Model S and X the safest cars on the roads, as the sensors can see further than human eyes to detect collisions.
A future where autonomous vehicles lead to a size reduction may be some way away, though. One Princeton study claimed that autonomous vehicles would account for around 75 percent of all vehicles on the road after the year 2035. Before then, it may take some time before consumers are convinced autonomous vehicles are indeed safer. Nonetheless, there’s a trend towards 3D-printed car components, and Ford is well-placed to take advantage of this shift as it occurs.
Watch the 3D printer in action here: