DETROIT -- Fenders, intake manifolds and spoilers on Ford Motor Co.'s race cars could soon be made of 3-D printed plastic -- if the automaker can overcome some manufacturing challenges.
The company said it's the first in the industry to experiment with the Stratasys Infinite Build 3-D printer to make parts for production cars that are lighter and cheaper than their cast metal counterparts. Compared with rival printers, the Stratasys is about 10 times faster and can build larger parts, up to 25 feet long.
But Ford may still be years from putting 3-D printed parts onto cars and trucks. The problem? The plastic used for the often-crude parts has been tested mostly on prototypes and isn't durable enough for production vehicles.
"We really see a lot of advantages that 3-D printing can enable in all parts of our business," Ellen Lee, Ford technical leader for additive manufacturing research, told Automotive News. "But there's not a lot of materials available for 3-D printing that have focused on durable, robust applications like automotive."
The room-sized Stratasys printer is housed in Ford's Dearborn Research and Innovation Center in Michigan. The automaker envisions using the printer on low-volume vehicles such as those in its race programs.
"With Infinite Build technology, we can print large tools, fixtures and components, making us more nimble in design iterations," Lee said. "We're excited to have early access to Stratasys' new technology to help steer development of large-scale printing for automotive applications and requirements."
The device works by taking a digital design and printing one layer of plastic at a time. Depending on the part, the printer could take days to make it.
The automaker has dabbled with 3-D printers for decades and claims to have bought the third 3-D printer ever made in 1988.
It first used 3-D printers to build prototype buttons, switches and knobs, and now makes parts on some of its racing vehicles. Those parts included the intake manifold of the Chip Ganassi Racing Daytona prototype car that won the 2015 24 Hours of Daytona race.
Ford also uses the devices to create smaller-scale models of new production cars. Despite Ford's long interest, Lee said the company does not envision printing full vehicles.
"I think those kind of things are flashy and attention-getting," she said. "What we really need to understand ... is how 3-D printing can help enable us and give us better performing designs."