Ford announced it has begun testing 3D printing of large-scale car parts using Stratasys’ Infinite Build 3D printer. Ford is the first automotive company to trial this technology with Stratasys.  As part of the partnership, which was announced in August 2016, Ford is exploring potential applications for future production vehicles, including Ford Performance products, as well as personalized car parts.

Stratasys says the Infinite Build 3D printer turns the traditional 3-D printer concept on its head with an “infinite build” approach that prints on a vertical plane for nearly unlimited part size in the build direction. It is designed to address the requirements of aerospace, automotive and other industries that require large, lightweight, thermoplastic parts.

As ExtremeTech explains, the printer uses a “worm” drive filament extruder, which allows it to print composite materials like carbon fiber. Typically, fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers press a polymer filament through a pair of wheels or gears and out of a heated extruder head, layer by layer. A worm extruder winds the filament through the head, which increases the flow pressure needed tor extruding composite materials.

“With Infinite Build technology, we can print large tools, fixtures and components, making us more nimble in design iterations,” said Ellen Lee, Ford technical leader, additive manufacturing research. “We’re excited to have early access to Stratasys’ new technology to help steer development of large-scale printing for automotive applications and requirements.”

According to Global Industry Analysts, by 2020, the global market for this emerging technology is expected to reach $9.6 billion, the organization reports. As 3D printing becomes increasingly efficient and affordable, companies are employing it for manufacturing applications in everything from aerospace to education to medicine.

Ford believes 3D printing could bring immense benefits for automotive production, including the ability to produce lighter-weight parts that could lead to greater fuel efficiency. A 3D-printed spoiler, for instance, may weigh less than half its cast metal counterpart.

The technology is more cost efficient for production of low-volume parts for prototypes and specialized racecar parts. Additionally, Ford could use 3D printing to make larger tooling and fixtures, along with personalized components.