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Dearborn, MI
Bending Metal In 3D

By TJ McCueThursday, August 28, 2014
3D Design, CAD, Manufacturing

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The English Wheel is a tool, some call it a machine, that allows a sheet of metal to be formed. It requires a skilled craftsman to use it, and although it is a time-consuming process, it can create a variety of shapes and forms by stretching the metal. NASCAR uses it to create new prototypes, for example. Ford Motor Company is developing an English Wheel, on steroids, so to speak, with a unique, patented process they call the “Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology” or F3T, for short.

While visiting the Ford Research and Innovation Center, I received a firsthand look at this brand new technology. When we talk about 3D printing, even though it is far from ubiquitous, most people have now seen something about it – or seen the 3D printed result in plastic (ABS or PLA material). But 3D is much bigger than just one material or one method as Ford is proving. They can take a 3D design, the 3D model file, and convert it to use on this F3T machine. The robot arm and stylus or bit is simply taking commands from the 3D file on how much pressure to apply and where as it bends sheet metal.

Check out this short video (above) as the F3T makes its way around a sheet of metal. I intentionally left the background hum of the robot arm instead of music. More productive sounding, I think. The blue material is a lubricant, just to be safe say the Ford team, to keep the bit or stylus moving smoothly. The second portion of the video, where you see the robot arm that is under the metal -- that portion has a high tech lubricant catching device that Ford has not yet named or trademarked, so I'm going to name it for them: SPCD, short for Styrofoam Plate Catching Device. Every metal bender needs one. 

Instead of waiting for bigger and better “printing” machines that can print from expensive metal powders, Ford is developing a way that will work with the existing material world in which they live: sheet metal. One of the challenges repeatedly heard about 3D printing is that it is not fast enough and that it cannot handle big metal auto size items. I guess Ford got tired of hearing that argument!

What Ford is doing here is impressive. A piece of sheet metal (aluminum or titanium approximately 3mm thick) is clamped on all four sides while two robot arms, one underneath, one above, move a roundhead stylus across the sheet metal blank. The team is working on some genius code to take the 3D CAD data and convert it to commands that the robot can follow – the metal is shaped by a combination of the tool path and pressure. No small task and that’s why we haven’t seen this technology before – it is a rather complicated problem to solve.

  • Watch this short video on the F3T from Ford’s own YouTube channel.
  • For an in-depth look at how NASCAR creates a car (prior to this invention, with an English Wheel), check out this post.
  • I put up a few a few extra photos from my visit on a Flickr Gallery.

According to Matt Zaluzec, Senior Technical Leader, Global Materials and Manufacturing Research at the center, once the technology is fully developed, it will allow for lower costs and ultrafast delivery times for prototypes – within two to three days versus conventional methods that take anywhere from two to six months. Beyond prototypes, they envision final parts and components in the very near future. Remember, to do this kind of work would have traditionally required the tooling of dies and casts that allow metal to be stamped into shape – an expensive and time-intensive process of weeks and months. Matt is the last photo in the gallery set here, for the record. 

Other applications exist, for sure, outside of automotive circles – with aerospace, defense, transportation and appliance industries lining up to take a look at what this new technology can do. Right now, the F3T robot arms can handle an 18x18 inch square of sheet metal. As you can see in the photos, a piece of sheet metal is clamped around its edges and formed into a 3D shape by two stylus-type tools working in unison on opposite sides of the sheet metal blank. Similar to a digital printer, after the CAD data of a part are received, computer-generated tool paths control the F3T machine to form the sheet metal part into its final shape to the required dimensional tolerances and surface finish.

There are not many English wheel craftsman left in the world. It is an art and science that is worth preserving, but perhaps with more modern approaches that allow a new generation of skilled operators to explore new paths of changing the shape of metal. Someday I hope Ford will make this technology available in some way for others to use. Then It won't be long before guys like Jeff Tiedeken at Monkey Likes Shiny start using Fusion360 to design and bend metal parts with their own F3Ts.

A version of this post appeared on Forbes: Ford Motor Corp Invents New Way To Shape Metal on July 18, 2014.

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