3D Printed Cars. Problem Or Panacea?

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Until now, cars have been manufactured in the same way since Henry Ford perfected the assembly line.

Arizona-based Local Motors aims to transform the traditional automotive world with the launch of a three dimensional (3D) printed car in 2016.

“Car manufacturers have been stamping parts the same way for more than 100 years,” said John B. Rogers, Jr., CEO and co-founder of Local Motors.

“We now have the technology to make the process and products better and faster by linking the online to the offline through DDM (Direct Digital Manufacturing). This process will create better and safer products, and we are doing exactly that.”

The two initial Local Motors models, the Reload Swim and Sport, will be low-speed battery-cars, or so-called neighborhood electric vehicle, priced between $18,000 and $30,000.

Each car takes about 44 hours to manufacture. However, research is ongoing and some proponents claim they are working on techniques that could increase printer speeds by as much as 500-fold.

3D Printed Cars. Problem Or Panacea?

China’s Sanya Sihai 3D Printed Car

Local Motors is not alone in pioneering 3D car printing, though. One company based in China, called Sanya Sihai, has just accomplished the 3D printing of yet another car. The manufacturers say that it took about a month and a half to build, with the 3D printing process taking about 5 full days. Unlike the Local Motors’ car though, the interior of this one is not 3D printed, nor does this vehicle compete when it comes to aesthetics. The car cost about 11,000 yuan ($1770) to build.

Interesting, but so what? “How an why does this matter to me?” you might ask.

3D Printed Cars Trends To Watch

There are several trends to pay attention to with these developments. First, competition between these two companies will spur more innovation and reduce price. We could conceivably see a low-cost, 3D printed car for poorer people worldwide.

Second, the competition between Local Motors and Sanya Sihai may turn into a proxy for the competition between the United States and China for the next evolution of manufacturing.

Third, 3D printed cars threaten traditional car manufacturers that have billions of dollars invested in plants and equipment around the world to build and distribute cars. 3D printed cars use less space and expensive equipment, albeit at much slower speeds.

Given today’s slower manufacturing speeds, it’s unlikely that 3D car printing will supplant the bulk of car manufacturing soon, but if it grows to be 10% of all cars manufactured, what impact will that have on Ford and General Motors?

3D cars also require fewer people to manufacture. This threatens labor unions. Labor is the first casualty in industries where technology is introduced—think journalists, travel agents, stockbrokers, insurance agents, etc.

Fourth, 3D printed cars pose a threat to the auto insurance industry in several ways. When 3D cars are in an accident, how safe will they be for passengers and pedestrians? It remains to be seen. One thing is certain; it will be less costly to replace the parts when a car is damaged, thereby reducing the cost to the insurance company. How much of those savings, if any, will be passed along to customers remains to be seen. Both of these outcomes may create a race to the bottom between insurers where only the lowest cost providers will survive. Bloated, traditional insurance companies will be unable to compete.

Finally, how sustainable will 3D cars be? Much research is needed in this area. On one hand, these 3D printed cars use battery power that may, or may not, be better for the environment depending on how electricity is generated where the cars are driven. Research is needed comparing the cost of disposing of 3D printed cars and car parts versus traditionally manufactured cars and car parts. Also research is needed on the impact of disposing of the batteries once a 3D car reaches the end of its lifecycle.

Overall, this is an exciting leap in car manufacturing that challenges the century-old way of doing things. It bears watching the developments, and you can be sure we will.

3D Printed Cars By 2017

UPDATE:    By 2017, you’ll be able to drive  3D printed cars from US carmaker Local Motors. Local Motors’ CEO, Jay Rogers, Jr., said at an industry conference that orders for the LM3D would be accepted starting next year.

Local Motors has spent the last 10 months making its model LM3D safe to actually drive, and strong enough to withstand a collision. the company promises to keep testing the design until it exceeds the US government’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, before the planned launch in 2017.

About 75% of the LM3D is 3D printed using a blend of strong plastic and carbon fiber, which makes it at least as durable as a Corvette. Local Motors will print cars at its factory in Tennessee, which is currently under construction. When they roll off the factory line—or the printer bed—they’ll cost $53,000—comparably priced to a BMW 5 Series or Porsche Boxster.

The LM3D will have fewer than 50 separate components, which makes it quick to build. LM3D will be customizable—Local Motors plans to offer a range of different design options with the flexibility and rapid prototyping that 3D printing affords. The original design was finalized on July 7 and the working, drivable vehicle was completed September 18—slightly longer than 2 months.

Recyclable 3-D Printed Cars In 2017

UPDATE 2: This latest development will thrill Environmentalists and trendsetters. In the near future, consumers will be able to trade in their car and have it recycled into a new one.

Jay Rogers, CEO and co-founder of Local Motors, foresees a future where customers can change their 3-D printed cars more often than they change smartphones. It’s theoretically possible, he explains, for customers to use his car for a season, return to Local Motors, and have the old vehicle melted down and reformed into something entirely different.

You can also turn your car in, have it melted down and get a credit toward the creation of a whole new vehicle. This particular retail angle is how the company plans to market its vehicles.

“We don’t expect anyone, not one person, to buy it because it’s a 3-D-printed car,” says Justin Fishkin, chief strategy officer at Local Motors. “People will buy them because of the ability for us to integrate technology more rapidly, and the ownership experience of being able to bring the car back.” (Note: this feature also will not be available until closer to 2017)

It’s a novel approach similar to what Tesla Motors has done with upgraded software. Attempting a parallel approach with upgradable hardware is bolder, however.

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Bill is an Associate Producer at Horsepower Broadcasting as well as our Operations Analyst. He personally oversees most all of the myriad interviews with our automotive celebrity guests. He handles scheduling, contacts, press releases, press passes and everything in between. His keen intellect is awe inspiring and he is a true academician in every sense of the term.

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