DETROIT — Instead of putting mounds of powdered waste from its 3D printers in a landfill, Ford Motor Co. is putting it in F-250 trucks.
The automaker last year discovered the discarded byproduct of 3D-printed plastic parts can be recycled and used to make production-quality fuel line clips. Ford made the switch on its F-250s in November and has since built more than 120,000 Super Duty trucks with the new part.
Ford says the recycled clips have better chemical and moisture resistance than the version they buy from suppliers. They also weigh 7 percent less and are 10 percent less expensive.
"This stuff is like gold. People look at it and say it's garbage, but it's better than what we're buying," Debbie Mielewski, Ford's technical fellow for sustainability, told Automotive News. "It demonstrates what you can do when you're really annoyed by waste."
The automaker is using 100 percent of the waste generated by the 3D printers at its advanced manufacturing center in Redford, Mich., but the amount of 3D-printed parts it makes is still relatively low volume. To ensure Ford has enough waste to consistently convert it into recycled clips, the automaker inked a deal with oral-care company SmileDirectClub to provide additional supply. Ford also is working with 3D-printing company HP to boost waste volume as it looks to put the recycled clips on additional nameplates.
Ford will take the waste and ship it to Canadian supplier Lavergne, which then cleans it, adds some modifications and turns the powder into pellets. It's then shipped to another supplier, ARaymond, which turns the pellets into automotive-grade fuel line clips.
"It's really helping everybody," Mielewski said. "We're super proud of finding this application."
Mielewski in recent years has helped develop auto parts out of everything from soybeans and shredded money to coffee beans and agave plant fibers. In most instances, her team tests a product for years before getting it just right.
The powdered waste application came together in just one year, after Mielewski traveled to Palo Alto, Calif., and met with HP executives to discuss the opportunities around 3D printing.
While HP makes a point of trying to eliminate as much unnecessary waste as possible, Mielewski realized that in most automotive applications, 3D printers can produce as much as 50 percent waste based on the size of certain parts and numbers of misfires from the machines.
"You get more sustainable manufacturing processes with 3D, but we are always striving to do more, driving our industry forward to find new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle powders and parts," Ellen Jackowski, chief sustainability and social impact officer at HP, said in a statement. "Our collaboration with Ford extends the environmental benefits of 3D printing even further, showcasing how we are bringing entirely different industries together to make better use of spent manufacturing materials, enabling a new circular economy."
The latest application is part of Ford's goal to achieve 100 percent sustainable materials in its vehicles. Mielewski said the automaker was open to working with additional businesses that are looking to get rid of 3D printer waste.
"These closed-loop economies can't be done alone," she said. "I'd love to use all of Ford's waste back in another Ford product, but sometimes you need other companies, and we've already found some willing partners."