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.
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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.