A Brave New World of Custom Cars?

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

Did you see the video about Ford’s new panel forming tech? Ford’s Freeform Fabrication Technology, F3T. Gizmodo called it a 3D printer for sheet metal but I think it’s more of a new take on traditional metal shaping tools since it’s essentially taking a large power hammer, reducing the scale of the work tools down to stylus size so very small sections of the panel are shaped at a time and digitizing the process.

I think it has potential for the car hobby well beyond letting Ford make prototype parts or short run niche vehicle body panels fast. I think it could bring coachbuilding to the masses. Right now it takes a lot of specialty machines and tools and years and years of apprenticing and metal shaping to be able to make a one-off fender, let alone an entire car. Imagine being able to take a CAD drawing of the car of your dreams, downloading it into a machine, and watch it start shaping fenders, hoods and doors.

What a cool idea!

What a freaking scary idea!

God, imagine the monstrosities we’ll see at custom car shows. Just think of the worst Corvette Summer level abortion in fiberglass that you’ve ever seen and then try to visualize its counterpart based on any car made out of metal. Imagine car enthusiasts whose idea of styling never got very far beyond the cars they drew in school notebooks in junior high now being able to have those ideas rendered in steel or aluminum. The Detroit Autorama is a great show, but there are always a few cars that demonstrate the triumph of demonstrable technical abilities over an equally demonstrable paucity of aesthetic talent. In other words, people with shit for taste will use the tech to make even more bizarre things than the insane wheels they can currently cut on a CNC machine.

Right now there simply aren’t that many people who know how to shape metal panels and have the specialty tools, the power hammers, the metal shrinkers, the stretchers, the English wheels and Italian hammers. Not many people can make a compound curve out of a flat sheet of metal. Not many people can afford to pay those other folks’ rates.

At this point it looks like the tech is a bit beyond the experimental stage but assuming Ford licenses it or otherwise allows it to proliferate I can see how in a few short years you no longer will need to find a skilled panel beater or coachbuilder to make you the car of your dreams. Just remember, though, some dreams are nightmares.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Join the conversation
3 of 22 comments
  • Summicron Summicron on Jul 04, 2013

    '88 Trooper sized for a Silverado chassis and a case each of Windex and suncreen.

  • Amca Amca on Jul 05, 2013

    I don't see this producing parts for even small series vehicles - note what they say in the video about "set it up, start it and come back the next morning." It's a slow, very expensive machine. Great for prototyping. But not there (yet) for producing a part you'd sell to someone.

    • Porschespeed Porschespeed on Jul 07, 2013

      Hardly. Mine can do an entire shell in under 24 hours with .01" accuracy. Built it myself for about $5K in parts...

  • Alan I blame COVID, the chip shortage, container shortage and the war in Ukraine. This aggression is evident in normal daily driving of late.
  • Alan $10 000 is a bit rich for a vehicle that most likely been flogged all its life, plus it's a VW. Lots of electrical gremlins live in them.
  • Alan Mitsubishi, Hino and Izuzu trucks are quite common in Australia. Another factor that needs to be taken into account are the cheap Chinese trucks and vans that are entering the market in Australia and becoming more popular as reliability improves, with huge warranties. Businesses want the cheapest logistics. Plumbers, concreters, builders buy many of these in their lightest versions, around 2.5 tonne payload. Hino/Toyota could use the cheaper competitor in Mitsubishi as a competitor against the Chinese. You don't see too many of the Japanese/Asian trucks in the rural areas.
  • 2ACL I think it's a good choice. The E89 didn't get respect due to its all-around focus when new, but it's aged well, and the N52/6HP combo is probably more fun and capable than it's given credit for.
  • Wjtinfwb I can hear the ticking from here...