How 3D printing can secure your wheels

Jon Lawson

As car security systems become increasingly more sophisticated, thieves are targeting car parts instead, including alloy wheels. 

One method to deter wheel thieves is to use locking nuts, one on each wheel, which require a special adapter, or key, to loosen. But even these are vulnerable, leading Ford engineers to harness 3D printing technology to develop next-generation locking wheel nuts.

Together with EOS, Ford has created locking nuts with contours based on the driver’s voice.

Like an iris scan or a fingerprint, a person’s voice can be used as a unique biometric identification. Engineers record the driver’s voice for a minimum of one second, saying something like “I drive a Ford Mustang”, and use software to convert that singular soundwave into a physical, printable pattern. This pattern is then turned into a circle and used as the design for the locking nut’s indentation and key.

With the geometry in place, the nut and key are designed as one piece, then 3D-printed using acid and corrosion resistant stainless steel. When finished, the nut and key are separated, with a small amount of grinding required to make them ready for use.

The design also includes second-level security features that prevent the nut from being cloned or copied. The unevenly spaced ribs inside the nut and indentations that widen the deeper they go prevent a thief from making a wax imprint of the pattern, as the wax breaks when it is pulled from the nut.

If not using the driver’s voice to create the contours, the nuts could feature designs specific to a vehicle, such as with the Mustang logo, or use the driver’s initials. The design could also take inspiration from a driver’s interest, for example, by using the outline of a famous racetrack.

On the Ford production line, 3D printing is used to create assembly line tools that are up to 50 per cent lighter, which makes repetitive tasks less physically stressful and helps improve manufacturing quality. As many of these tools are made of nylon, Ford has introduced a recycling programme that turns old 3D-printed pieces and plastics from manufacturing areas into 100 per cent recycled nylon. Ford also creates 3D-printed safety equipment, such as protection sleeves for rotating tools used on the production line, which prevent operators from incurring finger and arm injuries.