Innovative 3D printing of aluminium automotive parts

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Ford Motor and Exone have developed a patent-pending process for rapid and reliable 3D printing and sintering of aluminium for automotive parts.

The joint project is testing the innovative binder jet 3D printing and sintering of 6061 aluminium for automotive components. 6061 aluminium is one of the most commonly used aluminium alloys in the world that delivers properties comparable to die casting.

Delivering a commercially viable achievement in this area has evaded researchers for more than a decade. Collaborative and individual patents are expected to be filed by Ford and Exone as a result of this ongoing project.

Some aluminium alloys can be 3D printed today using lasers, but the process is much slower than the one developed by Ford and Exone, says a joint statement. The new process is expected to increase Ford’s efficiency by allowing the company to affordably produce complex parts uniquely designed for additive manufacturing, which enables size and weight reductions, part consolidation and performance improvements.

New, fast 3D printing for complex aluminium automotive components

“This is a breakthrough in making 3D printed and sintered parts for the auto industry,” says Harold Sears, Ford technical leader for additive manufacturing. “While the 3D-printing process is very different than stamping body panels, we understand the behaviour of aluminium better today, as well as its value in light-weighting vehicles. High-speed aluminium 3D printing paves the way for other opportunities that we’re just now starting to take a look at because of the ability to do complex parts with aluminium that previously weren’t possible. It’s really opening doors for other opportunities.”

“Developing a fast, affordable and easy way to 3D print aluminium with traditional material properties is a critical step toward light-weighting more products and delivering a more sustainable future,” says Exone CEO John Hartner.

The binder jet process

The innovation is based on the process of binder jetting, widely regarded as the fastest method of metal 3D printing for high-volume output. It uses a digital file to quickly inkjet a binder into a bed of powder particles such as metal, sand or ceramic to create a solid part, one thin layer at a time. When printing metals, the final bound metal part must be sintered in a furnace to fuse the particles together into a solid object. The heating process reinforces the strength of the metal, and while the process for sintering stainless steel is well understood, achieving high densities greater than 99 percent is an industry breakthrough for aluminium.

The Ford-Exone joint development project was first initiated in 2019. Ford has led the final material and repeatability testing to verify its accuracy. The cross-functional team is actively working on designs to use the new material and process.

The relationship between Ford and ExOne goes back to the early 2000s, when Ford purchased several of Exone’s first industrial sand 3D printers in the United States to create sand moulds and cores for metal casting. Exone 3D printers are among a wide range of technologies featured in Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Centre in Redford, Michigan, with additional printers in Ford’s UK facilities.

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