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Updated: May 30, 2013 7:22PM

Ford Motor Co. is using 3-D printing to make prototypes of everything from air vents to cylinder heads, saving millions of dollars and shaving months off production.

The so-called “rapid manufacturing” process has played a key role in the Torrence Avenue Assembly Plant’s production of the Explorer and its EcoBoost engine. It uses software to render photos into designs that can “print” physical objects.

The advance is a key part of what’s becoming known as the Industrial Revolution 2.0.

Since three-dimensional technology lets engineers work smarter, be more productive, improve product quality and offer a better value to customers, it could eventually let the South Side factory hire even more workers.

“Will that affect a plant? If we’re selling higher quality and more products, we’ll sell more [vehicles],” said Harold Sears, a Ford rapid manufacturing technical specialist.

And with 3-D’s rapid evolution, including possible home use, Ford aficionados can dream of one day home-brewing their own parts — perhaps a shift lever or a self-portrait hood ornament. But don’t hold your breath.

In Chicago, engineers prepping the Explorer SUV for its July 2010 launch noticed a brake noise, and sent eight brake-rotor designs to Ford’s rapid manufacturing team to troubleshoot the issue.

The 3-D team in Dearborn, Mich., printed cores for the brake rotors in a few days and sent them to a foundry for a sand casting so the Chicago engineers could figure out which design resolved the issue.

The process saved millions of dollars and three to four months’ time compared with the traditional casting method, said Paul Susalla, Ford’s manager of rapid manufacturing.

“The Explorer came out on time and added another shift,” he said. Ford hired 1,200 hourly workers to manufacture the Explorers and the Police Interceptor vehicle at its South Side assembly plant as part of a four-year union contract agreement.

How does 3-D save work?

Engineers feed computer-aided design (CAD) drawings into a 3-D printer to create a ceramic scaffold. The CAD file directs the printer’s head to move in a specific direction and, at the same time, guides a binder that deposits bone-like ceramic powder in a particular way, layer by layer, until it creates the specific mold drawn in the CAD.

There is a futuristic possibility that a Ford owner could home-manufacture a “creative” part, though not functional parts like engine components, Susalla said.

“Will this ever happen? We don’t know. It could,” he said. “Ford would have to provide the model details for a part to be successfully recreated.”

Personal 3-D printer sales nearly quadrupled to 23,265 in 2011, the latest data available, and could quickly become an “interesting” market for investors and system developers, according to Terry Wohlers, president of 3-D printing and manufacturing consulting firm Wohlers Associates in Fort Collins, Colo.

Prices range from $1,000 to $2,000 for kits and personal machines to professional-grade systems that sell for $500,000 to $1 million.

“It’s the next frontier in manufacturing parts,” Wohlers said. “We’ve already seen 3-D demonstrations of making cheese, chocolate and even meat and beef.”

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