When Texas Instruments introduced the electronic cash register two decades ago it transformed the business forever and spelled doom for NCR, the dominant maker of conventional mechanical cash registers.
Now the automotive tooling industry may be on the verge of a similar technological shift. “We are the Texas Instruments. Our dies look different and are made differently, but you can’t tell by looking at the parts,” says Joseph A. Szuba, principal Research Scientist and the leader of Ford Motor Co.’s Rapid Tooling Group at its Manufacturing Systems, Science and Research Laboratories.
Mr.Szuba’s Group has developed a new technique for making metal stamping dies and plastic injection molds that is 30% to 50% faster and cheaper than conventional methods, which haven’t changed much in 100 years.
Traditionally dies and molds are machined from special hardened metals, usually by special machine tools following computer instructions. The process is expensive and time-consuming.
Ford’s new method is similar to processes used to make “soft” prototype dies and molds, but the end result is tooling that can withstand the rigors of high production. Like prototype tooling, the process starts with a dimensionally correct plastic part made by the stereolithography or similar processes that transform computer-aided design data into physical parts. Then a ceramic material is used to create a mirror-image die from the part. A special metal spray-coating process then is used to coat the ceramic and make a hard, durable metal tool capable of stamping out thousands of door panels or molding thousands of injection-molded parts.
Mr. Szuba acknowledges the metal spray-coating concept is not new, but he says it usually isn’t durable and cracks under pressure. Ford’s new process doesn’t have that flaw. In one of the first trials, Ford’s Rapid Tooling Group made a blade die for a torque converter in just four weeks, versus 16 to 20 weeks for conventional tooling. Other projects include dies for latch reinforcement on the Ford Focus and an inner hood die for the Mercury Mountaineer.
The group also recently completed a door panel tool. Right now the special booth for applying the metal spray limits part size. The inner hood die, for example, had to be sliced into about a dozen pieces with a water jet cutter to be spray coated and then reassembled to make the part. However, Mr. Szuba says Ford is developing the capability to do an entire hood die in one piece.
The announcement caused a bit of a stir on Monday as dozens of attendees scrambled to get more information on the new “chipless” process. Ford is in licensing discussions with four potential customers, two in Detroit, one in California and one in the U.K – and is hoping to interest other parties. But while Mr. Szuba is happy to share information, he’s cautious about whom he is giving it to. “It’s like the Coke formula, we’re very concerned about protecting proprietary technology,” he says. The technology should be “on the street” in two to three years, Mr. Szuba says.