Save Your Wheels From Thieves With Ford's 3D-Printed Locks

The custom-patterned locking lug nuts resist duplication of the key.

The vulnerability of costly aluminum or carbon fiber wheels on cars was painfully illustrated when a prototype 2020 Chevrolet Corvette was shown on social media minus its wheels and tires in Detroit. If even carmakers’ engineers can’t keep their wheels safe, what chance do the rest of us have?

Image source: Car and Driver, via Twitter

Ford is answering that question with a program in Europe to 3D print custom locking wheel lug nuts for cars that are more resistant to theft.

“It’s one of the worst experiences for a driver, to find their car up on blocks with all four wheels gone,” observed Raphael Koch, research engineer, Advanced Materials and Processes, Ford of Europe. “Some alloy wheels can cost thousands to replace, but these unique rim nuts will stop thieves in their tracks. Making wheels more secure and offering more product personalization are further proof that 3D printing is a game-changer for car production.”

Normally, cars will have a single locking lug nut per wheel to prevent its removal without the special key attached to the lug wrench. But these can be defeated, so Ford is 3D printing patterns for its locks that can’t be cloned as easily.

Using 3D printers from EOS, Ford creates locks using a custom pattern for each customer. The default pattern is based on the driver’s voice, asking them to speak a short phrase to capture one second of the sound.

Image source: Ford Motor Co.

Alternatively, customers can choose other sources for the shape of their locks, including their initials, the Mustang logo or the outline of their favorite racetrack.

Whatever the pattern, the 3D printer creates the lock and the key as a single stainless steel part. After cutting the two apart, they need only a little polishing to work. The advantage of these locks is that they feature unevenly spaced ribs inside the nut and indentations that wide the deeper they go in. If a would-be thief tries to make a wax impression of these locks, the wax will break when it is pulled out of the lock.

Image source: Ford Motor Co.

Ford also uses 3D printing to create brackets for the parking brake line on the 2020 Mustang Shelby GT500 production model. And for toolmaking, 3D printing provides assembly line tools that are up to 50 per cent lighter, which makes repetitive tasks less physically stressful and helps improve manufacturing quality.

"Our customer, Ford, more than 100 years ago, changed the automotive industry when introducing efficient serial production processes," noted Michael Galba, Head of Global Consulting & Manufacturing Engineering for EOS GmbH. "Now they use EOS 3D printing to marry both the desire for individualization and the need for security. For this, they use, among others, the freedom of design 3D printing is offering to create a very special application."

Image source: EOS

“Having our very own plug-and-play printer enables us to make tools and parts exactly when we need them, and to replace them faster than ever before,” said Lars Bognar, research engineer, Advanced Materials and Processes, Ford of Europe. “For some tools, the delivery time was up to eight weeks, but with 3D printing, the turn-around has been reduced to just five days. Best of all, anyone can sit down, create the part they need and start printing it using recycled plastic.”

Dan Carney is a Design News senior editor, covering automotive technology, engineering and design, especially emerging electric vehicle and autonomous technologies.

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