Ford is testing large-scale 3-D printing technology for car parts, which could allow drivers to customize cars for a lower price, the company said on Monday.
The U.S. automaker says 3-D printing could be a "breakthrough for vehicle manufacturing", touting benefits including efficiency, lower costs, and the ability to test prototype parts and components for low-volume models like racecars.
Making a small batch of car parts at the moment is expensive and inefficient. With 3-D printing, Ford could test out new designs, and even personalize parts like spoilers for individual customers, which at the moment would be costly.
Ford also said that the 3-D printed plastic parts would be lighter than current materials leading to greater fuel efficiency. For its tests, Ford is using the Stratasys Infinite Build 3-D printer, becoming the first automaker to pilot the technology. Stratasys is a Minnesota-based 3-D printing firm.
The technology is seen as a big future business with spending on the hardware along with associated software, materials and services set to reach $28.9 billion in 2020, compared with around 13.2 billion last year, according to research from IDC.
With 3-D printing, design specifications are sent from a computer to the printer. It then prints one layer of material at a time eventually creating a 3-D object. A robotic arm can replace the raw material when needed, allowing for the machine to operate unattended for several days, Ford said.
Ford is not the only automaker testing out this technology, however. Last year, Germany's Daimler announced plans to use 3-D printing to produce spare parts, while French firm Peugeot signed a deal with Divergent 3D to develop metal printing processes for the production of its vehicles.