At Ford Motor Co.’s new Advanced Manufacturing Center in Redford, Michigan, 3D printing machines are humming away as they churn out new brake parts for the soon-to-be introduced Shelby Mustang GT500, while engineers across the room gaze through virtual reality headsets that simulate production lines.
The new $45 million center may seem like “Star Wars,” but it will soon be exporting new ideas and manufacturing processes to Ford’s many assembly plants throughout the nation, including those in Texas and Kentucky.
“More than 100 years ago, Ford created the moving assembly line, forever changing how vehicles would be mass-produced,” says Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of Global Operations. “Today, we are reinventing tomorrow’s assembly line – tapping technologies once only dreamed of on the big screen – to increase our manufacturing efficiency and quality.”
Ford employs about 100 experts at the development hub for cutting-edge manufacturing technologies, including 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, robotics, digital manufacturing and more.
One major emphasis at the center is 3D printing. The Advanced Manufacturing Center has 23 3D printing machines and is working with 10 3D manufacturing companies. This allows Ford experts to develop applications with different materials – from sand to nylon powder to carbon. One application currently under development has the potential to save the company more than $2 million.
Assembly line workers building the Ranger pickup also use five different 3D printed tools. These tools played a critical role in the launch of Ranger, removing weeks from an already tight timeline and ensuring quality is built in from the first vehicle that rolled off the line.
No innovation center would be complete without attention being paid to advancements with robots. Ford’s new collaborative robots, known as cobots, are now 100 strong in 24 Ford plants around the world.
Cobots are smaller than traditional automotive robots and can work safely alongside people, without protective cages. Cobots specialize in doing jobs that are too ergonomically difficult for employees. They also reduce costs by requiring less safety gear than that needed by larger machines.
“While we are increasing our use of collaborative robots, we strongly believe there is a need for both people and robots,” said Hinrichs. “People are better at doing certain jobs, while robots are able to perform certain tasks, including those that are ergonomically taxing for people.”