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An Interview with Harold Sears, Ford Motor Company

We originally posted about Ford Motor Company’s strong 3D printing initiative at their Beech Daly Technical Center back in early July. For those not familiar, the facility is a 24-hour location that is used to prototype parts for future vehicles as well as cast production-representative prototype parts. Using an array of 3D printers technicians are able to do amazing things with the technology. But that’s far from the whole story. One of their employees, Kevin Sowles, has taken it to a new level by introducing new and enhanced tools that improve efficiencies and streamline processes at the facility. After reaching out to Ford, we were connected with Harold Sears, a company veteran and Additive Manufacturing Technical Specialist who told us a little more about their company and their 3D printing efforts. The interview was conducted via email and the transcript is below.

1) When was the Beech Daly Lab established and for what purpose?
Ford’s Beech Daly Technical Center was opened in 2005 and is a 24-hour-a-day operation in which 3D printers are used to make prototype parts for future vehicles and intricate molds to cast production-representative prototype parts.

2) How long has the lab been using 3D printing for prototyping?
Ford has been at the forefront of 3D printing for 25 years and was involved with the development of some 3D printing technologies in the 1980s and 90s. In 1988, Ford purchased the third stereolithography 3D printer ever made.

3) What kinds of 3D printers are you using to design the various parts and now, more recently, these tools?
Ford uses stereolithography machines, sand printing machines, and other methods for 3D printing.

4) What inspired the creation of these new tools to begin with?
Ford technicians didn’t always have the tools available to them that fit the needs of a given task with 3D printing so the workers employed ingenuity—using the same advanced technology and 3D printers used to make experimental car parts—to create the perfect tool to make the task work better.

5) What are they mainly constructed of? What advantages/disadvantages have you noticed with the material? How long do they take to print?
Ford uses nylon, metal, and plastics to construct the 3D printed tools. The tools can take as little as a few hours to create, but it depends on what Ford is printing.

6) In the instance that one of these new tools breaks, do you simply print off a new one, or do you take a look at the current design to see if improvements could be made?
The Beech Daly engineers are always looking for ways to make additive manufacturing more efficient, whether it’s re-printing a tool or creating a new model.

7) What are some of the next tools you are hoping to develop?
Currently we have built a number of tools to make the jobs around the shop faster and easier, and have upgraded some of the machines from the factory make. In addition, we have made a long-handled scoop used to reach into a sand-printing machine to fill in small imperfections should they arise. Objects that work as an enhancement to the vacuuming system are used to clean sand or powder from parts—inserted into the nozzle to quicken the speed of the rushing air to increase the efficiency of the sand removal.

8) To work at the Beech Daly Technical Center, do you have to have a background in engineering, fabrication, or design already, or is there sufficient on the job training?
There are various jobs within this facility. Some require an engineering background, while others require a more hands on mechanical background. Many of our employees have come from other areas and have been retrained to fit their current position. The most important qualities are a willingness to learn and the ability to adapt to new technologies while working in a team environment.

9) With the success of the 3D printed tools at your plant, has there been any talk of using them or designing new ones to be used at other Ford labs/plants?
Ford has several 3D printing facilities around the world. Ford uses 3D printing to quickly produce prototype parts, shaving months off the development time for individual components used in all of its vehicles, such as cylinder heads, intake manifolds and air vents. 3D printing also saves millions of dollars in the product development process by eliminating the need for special tooling, or dedicated molds, for parts likely to change.

Ford has also made tools that act as assembly aids for production facilities as well as making tools that are used to make direct production level parts. The technology also allows engineers to experiment with more radical, innovative part designs inexpensively and quickly.

10) What do you think are some of the key skills needed for this next generation (and maybe the current one as well) to be able to meet the challenges of design and prototyping? Does your center accept internships or co-ops where students can come in and learn these skills?
Because this technology is so heavily dependent on 3D modeling, it is important to develop good computer skills and a good knowledge of 3D modeling software would be very helpful. Our employees have very diverse backgrounds, but they all have the willingness to learn, a customer focused attitude and the drive to help Ford Motor Company build the best products in the world!

About William Elward

Founder of Castle Ink, William Elward has 20 years experience in the printer industry. He's been featured on CNN Money, Yahoo, PC World, Computer World, and other top publications and frequently blogs about printers and ink cartridges. He's an expert at diagnosing printer issues and has published guides to fixing common printer issues across the internet. A graduate of Bryant University and Columbia's Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program, he's held various leadership positions at The College Board, Bankrate, Zocdoc, and Everyday Health. Follow him on Twitter at William Elward's Twitter Profile