The next time you take your car out for a spin, imagine how much more comfortable it would be if your steering wheel perfectly conformed to the shape of your hand.
Ford Motor Company envisions that customized steering wheels and other personalized car parts will eventually become the norm for the auto industry. That’s partly why the over 100-year old auto giant is turning to a newly launched Silicon Valley startup to develop technology to produce such customized products much faster than what’s currently available.
On Tuesday, Ford announced a partnership with Carbon3D, a startup that specializes in 3D printing, a sizzling marketplace that some analysts say will hit $16.2 billion by 2018. The startup made a splash in March when it publicly debuted during a TED talk during which company CEO Joseph DeSimone detailed its breakthrough 3D printing technology—inspired from the movie Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
The startup, which has $51 million in funding from Sequoia Capital and Silver Lake Kraftwerk as well as Autodesk’s Spark Investment Fund, now counts Ford as a customer in the company’s early access program for its device, which isn’t being sold to the general public as of yet. Former Ford (F) CEO Alan Mulally also joined the company’s board of directors in late May.
In an interview with Fortune, DeSimone explained the connection between the startup’s technology and Terminator 2, the Arnold Schwarzenegger-led action flick that showcased the villainous terminator known as T-1000. Unlike other terminators, T-1000 was crafted out of liquid metal and could transform into the shape of different objects and people.
DeSimone, who is on leave as a distinguished professor of chemical engineering at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, felt that 3D objects should also be able to similarly grow and morph. All they needed was a little bit of science, software, and hardware.
Technology used by most 3D printing companies creates objects layer-by-layer, similar to how conventional printers lay down ink on paper. But Carbon3D’s technology creates 3D objects “like a chemist grows crystals,” said DeSimone, who previously co-founded a number of companies including medical device makers.
The startup’s printer taps into a puddle of specialized resins that sits in a small reservoir inside the device. At the bottom of the reservoir is a special window that lets in oxygen and light that affects the resins in different ways. Light essentially hardens the resins and acts as “as a powerful chisel to solidify the resin in the shape you want it,” DeSimone said. Oxygen, meanwhile, “inhibits that process,” DeSimone explained.
Using software, the machine can calibrate production by letting in just the correct amounts of oxygen and light. Suction causes the resin puddle inside the device to rise and essentially craft an object from the liquid.
Creating 3D printed objects in this manner eliminates the layers associated with the types of 3D printed creations on the market. Layers make for a weaker product like a shell or shale-like object that breaks apart when pierced by a screwdriver, for example.
The technology lets Carbon3D produce 3D printed objects that are stronger than others manufacturers and at a speed that is up to 100 times faster, DeSimone said. It’s this sales pitch that got Ford’s attention.
Former Ford CEO Mulally arranged for representatives of Carbon3D to demo the technology for Ford, said Ellen Lee, Ford’s team leader of additive manufacturing. Lee’s research team experiments with technology for creating objects in an “additive” manner like Carbon3D’s machines as opposed to a “subtractive” manner in which objects are created by cutting away at large hunks of materials.
Ford, which is always looking ways to improve its manufacturing process, is exploring 3D printing for future production. As of now, 3D printing technology is not speedy enough to create the millions of parts required, Lee explained.
But she said that Carbon3D could eventually be put to use crafting personalized car parts for customers because those don’t require producing hundreds of thousands of copies. Furthermore, she praised the strength of the objects created by the company and their durability.
One of the items the team already crafted with the machine was a type of rubber connector used to protect the wiring that goes in car doors. It only took seven hours for the team to whip out the object as opposed to the 22 hours it took the team to make the prototype using more traditional methods, she said.
The materials Carbon3D uses to create objects are still being tested as to their performance in different environments, Lee said. Ford wouldn’t want to put materials in cars that can dramatically alter in strength or shape depending on the weather, for example.
Also, Ford is looking for Carbon3D to eventually make a bigger printer that can craft bigger objects for its car prototypes. But Lee acknowledged that Carbon3D has other customers whose needs differ from Ford’s.
Still, Carbon3D is showing a lot of promise for Ford, and Lee said the auto giant is looking at the startup’s technology to help create 3D printed durable molds, which they could then use for injection molding manufacturing of car parts. The type of big metal molds Ford currently uses for manufacturing can take two to three months to make.
Regarding custom car parts tailored for customers, Lee said that she envisions items like custom car seats or even cup holders being made by Carbon3D.
“In the future, there’s a lot to be said about having something customized,” Lee said.