3D printing is now entrenched at Ford

While 3D printing was little more than a toy for engineers 20 years ago, today Ford Motor Co. could not develop new cars without it. New technologies ensure it's coming to a production line near you.

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DEARBORN, Mich. -- If you were to put the brakes on 3D printing technology at Ford today, the company's vehicle development would literally come to a screeching halt.

Additive manufacturing at the automaker has evolved from being a niche technology a few engineers toyed with 20 years ago to its integration in the R&D process 10 years ago to the "entrenched" development process it is now.

"We touch a significant portion of the vehicle with 3D printing now," said Harold Sears, technical expert of rapid manufacturing technologies with Ford's manufacturing division. "We're prototyping virtually everything [using 3D printing] from road to roof."

How much of a digital transformation has 3D printing brought to Ford? A little more than a decade ago, Ford 3D-printed perhaps 4,000 prototype parts for its vehicles. Today, the automaker's five 3D prototyping centers churns out more than 100,000 parts annually. In the future, additive manufacturing (3D printing) will likely be used to construct a least a portion of production parts on vehicles, Sears said.

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