A modern assembly line can churn out a new vehicle every few minutes, but when carmakers want to build and test a prototype, it takes weeks to produce the dies and moulds needed to stamp out a custom one-off part. So Ford has developed a fantastic new prototyping machine that functions kind of like a 3D printer in that it can produce a custom part in mere hours. Except that instead of plastic, it works its magic on sheet metal.

Three-dimensional models from a designer's modelling software are sent to the machine, which uses a pair of robotic arms mounted above and below a flat piece of sheet metal. The robotic arms feature very precise points at their ends, which are used to warp, bend, and shape the 2D sheet of metal into a 3D object. And depending on the complexity and size of the part being prototyped, it can do this in mere hours.

It allows designers and engineers to refine, produce, and test a new or custom part again and again in a manner of days, without having to solely rely on software simulations. And while in its infancy the machine isn't quite fast enough to join an assembly line, it's the perfect tool for crafting one-off concept vehicles, or parts for special edition vehicles that aren't intended for mass production. [YouTube via SlashGear]