Ford is developing a new manufacturing technology that the automaker said has the potential to reduce costs and delivery times for sheet metal parts that are needed in smaller quantities. The automaker is basing this technology on its Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology (F3T), which is a process the company developed at its Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich.

This new manufacturing process involves a piece of sheet metal being clamped around its edges and formed into a 3D shape by two tools, each similar to a stylus, that work together on opposite sides of the unformed piece of sheet metal. Computer-generated tool “paths” control the F3T machine to form the sheet metal part into its final shape.

Ford said that traditional sheet metal stamping processes are energy intensive and that it can take several months for a new sheet metal part to go from concept to production. Although this is efficient for high-volume parts production, Ford said its F3T technology allows the company greater flexibility when producing low-volume parts.

For example, using the F3T process, Ford can deliver a new sheet metal part in three business days, from when the computer aided design (CAD) file is received to when the recipient receives the part, as opposed to the usual two to six months with conventional stamping methods.

The company also said that this technology will help improve R&D, allowing the automaker to quickly create parts for prototypes and concept vehicles. Creating a prototype die using current technology can take six to eight weeks, according to the automaker. By contrast, Ford said F3T can produce sheet metal parts for prototypes in days at very low costs (the company described them as “essentially no cost”). Another potential application for F3T is the ability for buyers to customize vehicle bodywork.

The following video from Ford shows the F3T process.