By Dwight Burdette (own work), via Wikimedia Commons
Ford's plant in Wayne, Michigan
Ford's Michigan facilities are already using 3D printing technologies.
3D prototyping may be pushing the boundaries of innovation as enterprises both large and small start really exploring the technology.
The carmaker demonstrated these techniques in the latest incarnation of its hybrid vehicle, as the drivetrain and other key parts of the vehicle were produced by a new development process that is being adopted by companies around the world.
Rather than using custom machine tools to build early prototypes of the new parts, Ford is now using 3D printing to design and test its latest designs and engineering endeavours.
The new technique enables developers to have a prototype ready in as little as a week after drafting a design, compared with previous wait times of up to four months.
Ford's new hybrid transmission was made on a 3D printer that costs around $300,000 (£197,191, €230,730) that turns aluminium powder into a working prototype in the space of a day or two.
Technical expert in rapid manufacturing at Ford's design hub in Dearborn, Michigan, Harold Sears stated that the process is enabling the carmaker to build "more and more parts every day".
He noted: "For any engineer using [prototype] models to develop, this is the way to do it. Most large companies are now doing things this way."
Low-cost 3D printing by consumers is already taking off and now large businesses are embracing advanced versions of the technology, USA Today reports. The result of this is a significant improvement in the product development process across a range of sectors.
And according to Mr Sears and a clutch of other engineers the news organisation spoke to, the technology has done more than save both time and money at production facilities. The industry experts say rapid prototyping using 3D printing is producing higher-quality, more innovative products thanks to the ability to custom-make items.
And while huge enterprises such as Ford undertake 3D printing on a large scale, the makers of 3D printers such as Stratasys are developing mid-range desktop models costing around $30,000-$50,000 as they look to address the wider market.
CEO of San Francisco-based ProtoTank Adam Ellsworth stated: "As costs come down and [printing] speeds go up, the number of products is exploding."
Companies that target small firms and consumer applications of 3D printing are already attracting the attention of investors who see the technology as a growth driver.
Indeed, this month the New York City Investment Fund extended a loan to 3D printing and prototyping company Shapeways.
The loan of £1.2 million is to be used by the firm to build a new Manhattan facility, according to New York City Partnership Fund president and CEO Maria Gotsch.
"We see this as a growth area, and we want to attract and keep the economic activity and jobs it creates here in New York," she stated.
Small businesses and entrepreneurs
Meanwhile, the maker community is proving to be the most enthusiastic about the emerging technology.
USA Today reports that instructor Kyle Moore is teaching San Francisco residents about 3D printing technology at TechShop, a technology incubator with offices in ten US cities. His classes are full to bursting with eager makers keen to learn about and make use of the six workstations and related software.
Former editor of Wired magazine Chris Anderson has been instrumental in bringing 3D printing to the maker section of the marketplace.
Speaking at San Fransico's Commonwealth Club, he stated that the maker revolution will rival both the industrial revolution and PC revolution in terms of the size of impact it will have on society.
Still a way to go?
But despite this zeal the tech media world has for 3D printing at present, the technology still has plenty of room for development and improvement.
Former industrial designer Jesse Harrington was quoted by USA Today as saying: "3D printers have come a long way, but they still only work about 70 per cent of the time."
The expert - who now works as a program manager and liaison to the 3D maker community for Autodesk - added: "3D printing isn't going to replace manufacturing or anything that's made with liquid metal poured into a mould, at least not yet."
Even so, there are those who are convinced 3D printing is the next development to transform manufacturing and the wider business sector.
Mechanical engineering manager Gregory Jantsch at contract manufacturer Jabil in St Petersburg, Florida, told the news provider that his company is an early adopter and now uses 3D printing for the vast majority of its production efforts.
The company makes everything from BlackBerry phones to Hewlett-Packard laptops and Mr Jantsch concluded: "There's no doubt in my mind, anyone who doesn't develop this way will be left behind."