USA - Ford to share insight into its Additive Manufacturing outlook at AMUG 2022

When the Additive Manufacturing community comes together once again at AMUG 2022 in Chicago, Illinois, USA, April 3–7, Ellen Lee, the Ford Motor Company’s Technical Leader Additive Manufacturing Research, will deliver a much-anticipated keynote on the company’s AM developments.

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Speaking with Metal AM magazine’s Kim Hayes, Lee previewed her upcoming keynote and shared her insights into where Ford, and indeed the wider mainstream automotive industry, currently is on the road to AM adoption.

Lee’s keynote, ‘Automotive Manufacturing to Additive Manufacturing: From History to the Future of Mobility,’ both contrasts and complements the event’s other keynote, to be delivered by Kevin Czinger of Divergent 3D and Czinger Vehicles, in which Czinger will speak in depth about his company’s radically different approach to automotive production, the Divergent Adaptive Production System (DAPS™).

Having attended past AMUG conferences, Lee initially remarked on the sense of community at AMUG and explained what she is most looking forward to for the 2022 edition. “I have been attending AMUG for several years – except in 2020 and 2021, due to COVID. AMUG is unlike other conferences and trade shows in that there is a feeling of community; that we are all working together to advance AM. Because of that, it felt like the right place to deliver the message about automotive industry-specific needs that must be addressed to be able to realise scalability.”

“I will be discussing the impact that the automotive industry has had on the manufacturing technology landscape, including key events and innovations throughout history,” Lee explained. “I’ll give insight into how this influences the future of mobility and, in particular, what that means for potential AM adoption. I’ll share the automotive point of view of what types of use cases and technology developments we should be focusing on now in order to find success in scaling to higher volumes in the future.”

“Our technology drivers are different than those of the aerospace and medical industries, so delivering this keynote provides the opportunity to influence the industry direction. I’m looking forward to learning about the latest AM technologies and new innovative use cases, meeting people, and making connections,” she stated.

From polymer to metal Additive Manufacturing

Whilst Lee has a background in polymer engineering, her presentation will offer her perspective on the use of both metal and plastic AM in the automotive field. Commenting on the differences and overlaps between these two classes of material, and the different ways that they may be approached by automotive design engineers, Lee commented, “While my training is indeed in the polymer field, many aspects of understanding materials and manufacturing – such as the importance of process-structure-property-performance relationships – are analogous between the two areas. Similarly, both fields have many of the same overall challenges when we investigate a change from conventional, tooled production to AM production.”

“Although polymer AM has been used extensively for prototyping, the primary materials used are not suitable for durable, end-use automotive applications; on the other hand, while there are many examples of metal AM used for durable, end-use aerospace and medical applications, the cost and compatibility of these materials with our current metal alloys is a hurdle. The challenges that we need to navigate when considering AM for automotive production may differ between metals and polymers, but I would not characterise one being treated with more or less apprehension than the other.”

The old and the new in automotive

With both AMUG keynotes focusing on the automotive industry this year, one cannot help but see this as a perfect playoff against the new, disruptive, high-performance automaker and the established, over 100-year-old automotive mass producer. Of course, the auto industry has been innovating incrementally for many decades, but recently, with the rise of electric vehicles and ever more stringent emissions targets, it seems there has been more of a drive for innovation, but to what extent has AM played a part in this? Lee shared her thoughts on this:

“I agree that having keynotes from both Ford and Divergent3D/Czinger Vehicles is a terrific opportunity for the AMUG attendees to understand the needs and challenges in the automotive industry between performance and democratisation. However, I wouldn’t characterise it in exactly the same way. While Ford is focused on the democratisation of technologies for every person, we have long used lower volume and performance platforms for disruptive innovation, not just incremental solutions.”

“We often implement new innovative technologies for motorsports or in a luxury vehicle where customers desire specific performance; then work to scale the technologies to higher volume platforms,” she explained. “With these new automotive start-ups that focus on high-performance vehicles at ultra-low volumes, theirs is an extension of the same approach. Most technologies in your car today started out in a race car. As we move towards more AVs and EVs, as well as with increased consumer desire for more customisation, I do expect that AM will be a key enabler for even faster innovation.”

Breaking into a heavily controlled industry

When it comes to replacing traditional manufacturing processes with AM, there is naturally some caution from an industry that has such rigorous quality and process control standards. Automotive makers have long-established and well-trusted supply chains and the idea of replacing casting, machining, PM, MIM, etc, with AM for high volumes of structural and load-bearing components, is a big step.

“You are absolutely correct,” stated Lee. “In order to successfully implement AM for a series production application, not only does it need to meet the technical feasibility for all performance and durability requirements, and meet manufacturing process capability for quality, but it also needs to do so with a good value proposition.”

“The business case looks different for AM than for conventional tooled production and must take into account all the unique benefits from AM. But you’ve touched on a key point in that we have a trusted and very complex supply chain network. However, many of our trusted tier suppliers in the automotive industry are not experienced in AM technologies; while the contract manufacturers who know AM best are not a part of our current supply chain and are unfamiliar with the automotive industry needs. During this critical time, we need to tackle this challenge from both sides to develop our ideal automotive AM supply base.”

Touching on that key point of trust in a supply chain for automakers, AM standards will hopefully go on to play an essential part in establishing and maintaining that trust. We asked Lee how active Ford is in the development of AM automotive standards.

“AM standards are essential in getting to scaled production for any industry vertical. They ensure that things are done in a safe, reliable, and consistent manner. When we need to compare the performance of something, standards tell us how to make, measure, or evaluate that product against equivalent metrics. Only when these standards are in place can we have confidence that we can meet specific targets. Ford has been quite active in this space.”

“We work closely with colleagues from GM and Stellantis through USCAR (the United States Council for Automotive Research) and are currently developing automotive-specific standards for AM. The three companies have also been collaborating with UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratories) to advise on standards for certification of AM polymers. Finally, I am an officer on the ASTM F42 Executive Committee for AM so that I can provide a voice from the automotive industry; and have worked with the ASTM AM Center of Excellence partners in standards development for powder re-use and recycling.”

The potential for real volume production

Looking ahead to when the industry might reach ‘real’ volume production, we must question how supply chains will develop. Looking at it in terms of the ‘chicken and the egg,’ it’s not possible to ramp up usage of AM if the supply chain doesn’t have the capacity, but end-users develop a complete facility for volume production in house. Are there currently any signs that this supply chain is taking shape?

“The ‘chicken and egg’ challenge is not unique to AM. It’s a common one in the development of any new technology that requires significant infrastructure and value chain development,” answered Lee.

“There are signs that this is happening somewhat organically; although our specific needs are different among automotive, aerospace, medical, and consumer industries, there is enough overlap that contract manufacturers are able to support us all as capacity needs ramp up. As AM usage grows, the supply chain will mature and have more specialised capabilities,” she concluded.