Ford Motor Company is developing an English Wheel, called “Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology” or F3T, for short. 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.
As reports Forbes review, 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. It is coming, it is coming, is the mantra we hear, but for right now, big manufacturers, and small ones – are in the business of producing parts, on a large scale, and 3D printing has not yielded the results to convince those players of its true and huge value. Yet.
What Ford is doing in its Ford Research and Innovation Center 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.
According to the Ford F3T team – 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. 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, to say the least.
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 18×18 inch square of sheet metal.
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.