3D printing is allowing carmakers to go from concept to completion in just days.
According to latest reports, the use of 3D printing in the auto industry is expected to quintuple over the next five years to a value north of $1.25 billion, up from just $267 million today. This comes after history was made last year when the world’s first 3D-printed car drove out of Chicago’s McCormick Place during the 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show. Well, the Local Motors crew is back at it again, this time 3D printing the main structure of a car right on the 2015 North American International Auto Show floor.
The Strati is first-ever 3D-printed vehicle and is a refinement of a design created by Michele Anoè, who submitted the concept as part of an online co-creation community project. The initial Strati models began printing today in Detroit in an example of what the company dubs a micro-factory, a lab that is typically located within 100 miles of major urban centers, creates more than 100 local jobs, reduces freight and distribution costs by 97%, increases recycling and reduces waste while speeding delivery time to market. The first two will be opened in Knoxville, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.
“Gone are the days of an economy of scale in order to introduce and commercialize a technology,” explained Local Motors CEO John B. Rogers, Jr. “Micro-factories are a great counterpoint because they employ an economy of scope by taking advantage of low cost tooling and co-creation, resulting in the ability to get products to market faster and in less time while using less capital to find a winning concept.”
Throughout the two-weeklong event, Local Motors showed off its proprietary manufacturing process for 3D-printing cars, which consists of three phases: additive, subtractive and rapid assembly. Made from ABS plastic reinforced with carbon fiber provide by SABIC, the current model of the Strati takes approximately 44 hours to print 212 layers. And while it won’t hit Formula 1-like speeds anytime soon, the two-seater can reach 25 miles per hour.
The end result is a completed 3D-printed Car Structure™. Once 3D printing is complete, the 3D-printed Car Structure moves to a Thermwood CNC router that mills the finer details. After a few hours of milling, the Strati’s exterior details take shape. Finally, the Car Structure is printed and refined, while the non 3D-printed components like the drivetrain, electrical components, gauges, wiring and tires are added. A vinyl wrapping, paint or other surface treatment is used to complement the 3D-printed texture, resulting in a showroom-ready vehicle.
While the company may not be ready to talk definite price just yet (which will most likely sell for $18,000 to $30,000), it does want to shorten the production process from just under two days to a day. CEO Jay Rogers notes that the Strati is first of three vehicles Local Motors plans to sell, with the current model launching this year.
However, as impressive as they may be, the first batch of printed cars will be categorized more like golf carts as “neighborhood electric vehicles.” Yet, the company does intend on offering a ride that can be driven on all roads in the U.S over the next two years. This, of course, will first require passing safety requirements set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, including crash tests.
“We like to think of it as Build-A-Bear, mashed up with Ikea, mashed up with Formula One,” Rogers recently told the New York Times.
Strati isn’t the only 3D-printed vehicle shining in the NAIAS spotlight, as the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has also debuted a fully-functional 3D-printed Shelby Cobra. The car, which honors the 50th anniversary of the Shelby Cobra 289 FIA, weighs 1,400 pounds, with nearly a third of the parts used on the vehicle having been printed in just 24 hours.
From concept to completion, the team took six weeks to design, manufacture and assemble the Shelby, including the 24 hours of print time. The new Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine, jointly developed by ORNL and Cincinnati Incorporated, can construct components 500 to 1000 times faster than today’s industrial additive machines. ORNL researchers say the speed of next-gen additive manufacturing offers new opportunities for the automotive industry, especially in prototyping vehicles.
“You can print out a working vehicle in a matter of days or weeks,” explained Lonnie Love, ORNL Senior Research Scientist. “You can test it for form, fit and function. Your ability to innovate quickly has radically changed. There’s a whole industry that could be built up around rapid innovation in transportation.”