Ford begins testing 3D printing large car parts for cost-effective customization

The spoiler on a future Ford car you buy might be 3D-printed. Ford Motor Company announced on Monday that they’ve begun testing 3D printing of large-scale parts, using tech provided by 3D printing industry giant Stratasys. The pilot project is designed to find out how Ford might be able to use 3D printing to make large parts, tooling and components at relatively small volumes, where it normally wouldn’t make sense to even bother because of how much it would cost.

If these tests with Stratasys’ commercial-grade Infinite Build 3D printer go well, that could open up a whole new world of opportunity for niche vehicle lines, vehicle upgrade options and more. That’s very handy in some of the fields where Ford currently operates, including racer manufacture, and in building prototype and concept vehicles rapidly and with less investment required.

But for the ordinary consumer, it could mean custom rides off the production line in the future, with made-to-order parts and aesthetic upgrades that are truly unique. Commercial 3D printing is appealing because it doesn’t require use of the kinds of moulds built to form plastic body panel parts like spoilers today. Building those moulds is so expensive up front that it would never make sense for a car maker to build them for singe or even small-batch use, unless the customer in question was willing to pay far, far more than the price of your average vehicle.

3D printed parts don’t just have cost benefits – they also offer weight savings. Ford estimates that a 3D-printed spoiler could be less than half the weight of the equivalent made from a metal casting, for instance, so you can extrapolate that a car where many of its external body pieces are 3D-printed could enjoy greatly decreased weight overall, and better fuel efficiency as a result.

So far, Ford’s just testing this tech at its Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn Mich., but if all goes well it could herald a big change in the way the company makes cars.