3D Printed Model T. Source: WhiteClouds
3D Printed Model T. Source: WhiteClouds

A hundred years ago, Henry Ford changed manufacturing when he produced a car via assembly line for the first time. Now, a 3D printing company has paid homage to his achievement by creating a replica of Ford’s Model T car using a 3D printer—a technology some say could lead to a revolution in manufacturing just as profound as the assembly line.

WhiteClouds used 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, to build a 1:20 scale model of the car. Just as the assembly line increased manufacturing speed and led to the second industrial revolution, some speculate 3D printing is ushering in the third industrial revolution by increasing the speed between idea and physical object. In a recent Google+ Hangout, 3D printing industry leaders met to discuss the future of additive manufacturing.

Christine Furstoss, Technical Director of Manufacturing and Materials Technologies at GE Global Research, facilitated the discussion. “To me, [3D printing] is really signifying the start of what I believe will be the third industrial revolution,” said Furstoss. “A new way of thinking about manufacturing as being as important as any product.”

According to Ford Motor Company, the assembly line is “the innovation that made the greatest impact on manufacturing, industry and society as a whole.”

Before the assembly line, the standard process for building a car was time-consuming. A team of workers moved from one station to the next, performing a specific task. A single delayed part would cause a backup of workers and significant lost time. This problem ended on October 7, 1913, with Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line and mass production. In an assembly line, the product moves down a line while   workers remain stationary, ready to perform their tasks.

This new way of building a product was applied to almost every facet of the manufacturing industry. Ford built cars at a greater speed than ever before; the time to build a car dropped from 12 hours to less than three. The drastic increase in efficiency drove the cost down to where the masses could afford to buy a car.

Similarly, 3D printing can decrease the time from product conception to physical object. The model built by WhiteClouds was conceptualized, designed and printed in less than 30 hours. 3D printing does not focus on a single product for the masses, but on manufacturing custom products for individuals. Additive manufacturing could ultimately remove the product and manufacturing process from the worker, and put it in the hands of the consumer, its proponents say.

“I like to think we’ll develop into smarter consumers and product designers, and reverse the “Walmart-ification” of retail, which I define as the selling and buying of millions of cheap junk items that break too soon,” said Tim Caffrey of Wohlers Associates. “We’ll see products that are well designed and manufactured. They might be personalized, they may cost more, but they will last longer and function in a better way. Inventories and warehouses will shrink, production lots will become smaller, and tooling will be an option, rather than a requirement. Consumers will be able to co-design and customize their products to a limited degree.”

To commemorate Ford and the anniversary of the assembly line, WhiteClouds combined old industry with new technology by designing and 3D printing a model of the Model T. “We felt this was a good way to illustrate where manufacturing has been and where it might be going,” said Jerry Ropelato, CEO of WhiteClouds. “The assembly line greatly influenced manufacturing in Ford’s day just as 3D printing is in ours. There are a lot of similarities to what happened then, and what’s happening now.”  

WhiteClouds designers Kelly Root and Jess Schenk created the Model T using several photo references and Autodesk Maya 3D modeling software. The team said the biggest challenge was not having access to the original measurements. “There are a lot of great pictures but there aren’t a lot of great references from every angle,” said Root. “This made it difficult to get the various parts of the car exactly to scale.”

Once designed, WhiteClouds printed the car in their lab on a Connex 500 3D printer. This printer is capable of printing in multiple materials with a highly detailed resolution. Each layer is just 16 microns thick, less than 1/5 the width of the average human hair. The model car was printed using seven different materials. The printer is able to print with multiple materials in the same build and it can also mix materials to varying degrees to create new materials.   

While 3D printing is known for creating parts with movable pieces in a single print, the Model T was printed in 22 separate parts and then assembled by the WhiteClouds team. “Because the parts were so small and we wanted moving parts, it was easier to print them separately,” said Schenk. The doors and hood open, the tires rotate and the windshield pivots. The model took just over 16 hours total to print in three separate builds.    

Ford played an important role in the second industrial revolution and changed our world. Just as the assembly line was widely adopted by manufacturers in many industries, 3D printing promises to have a similar impact on the way we build things. The days of mass production may give way to individualized products produced in your own home.